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Yellow-breasted chat is a showstopper

Cathryn Cunningham/Journal

Like many of us, I found myself getting a bit stir-crazy while practicing the stay-at-home orders and social distancing.

With mask and binoculars in hand, I recently ventured out to the trails near the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park in Albuquerque to do some birding. As usual, the bosque area did not disappoint. I saw a variety of beautiful birds, but the yellow-breasted chat was the showstopper.

The yellow-breasted chat is our largest warbler, averaging 7½ inches long. It has a bright yellow throat and breast, white spectacles, a long tail and a gray-olive back. It lives throughout much of the U.S., including New Mexico.

It’s a fairly common bird in its habitat but not commonly seen. I was alerted to its presence by its song. The song is varied and consists of whistles, buzzing, gurgles and harsh rasping sounds. The chat also mimics other bird sounds.

Yellow-breasted chats prefer dense, shrubbery habitat. This includes overgrown farm fields, fence rows – and in the West – thickets along rivers. They are hard to spot because the chat stays low in the dense vegetation. The best time to spot them is in early spring and summer when the male chat is singing to establish a territory and attract a female.

After establishing a nesting territory, the male chat will give what is called a display flight to females, other males and intruders. During the display, the chat descends from a high perch while singing and beating its wings. At the end of the flight, the wings appear to make a loud thumping sound. Yellow-breasted chats are thought to be mainly monogamous; however, studies have shown that some nests contain chicks sired from another male.

The chat is not commonly seen in urban areas unless there is suitable habitat such as the Rio Grande bosque in Albuquerque. The yellow-breasted chat has benefited from some human activities, such as clear cutting and power line clearing, that produce the shrubby habitat chats desire. Other activities, such as grazing, have decreased habitat.

Like many other warblers, the yellow-breasted chat is a long-distance migrant. This chat winters in Mexico and Central America and flies north to summer in the U.S. and parts of Canada. Often migrating at night, they can hit tall buildings and become disoriented by bright lights. These are some of the factors that have placed the yellow-breasted chat on the endangered/threatened list in some areas.

Mary Schmauss is the owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Albuquerque, a lifelong birder and author of “For the Birds: A Month-by-Month Guide to Attracting Birds to Your Backyard.”