Breeding Bird Atlas 2 Species Accounts

Yellow-breasted Chat

Icteria virens

  • Very local, trend not established
“This is a very singular bird.” – Alexander Wilson, American Ornithology

Tentatively placed with the warblers, the noisy, skulking chats show a strange mix of characteristics not shared with any other group. The Yellow-breasted Chat is an archetypal southern species, most common as a breeder in the Mid-Atlantic states and the American Southwest to Texas. They also breed in the Rocky Mountains, California, and sparingly into New England. As a bird of early-successional shrub communities, Yellow-breasted Chats were probably very rare in pre-Colonial Massachusetts. Today, they remain ephemeral and local as breeding birds in the Commonwealth.

Historic Status

The earliest chroniclers of birdlife in the state were aware of the Yellow-breasted Icteria, now called the Yellow-breasted Chat, but knew it as a southern species that was obviously outside its range whenever it reached the state (Peabody 1839). Its perfection of the hide-and-seek lifestyle made it an elusive sighting in Massachusetts. “Doubtless there are many more Yellow-breasted Chats breeding in Massachusetts than are indicated by local lists,” wrote Edward Howe Forbush. “The birds are so skilled in keeping out of sight that few people ever see or recognize one,” (Forbush 1929). A northward push in distribution followed forest regeneration in the early part of the twentieth century but essentially stopped short of including Massachusetts in the regular breeding range of the species.

Atlas 1 Distribution

There are few things birdwatchers like much as they like rarities, and Atlas 1 showed the Yellow-breasted Chat to be a very rare and local breeder in Massachusetts, with only 4 Confirmations. The southern Connecticut River Valley had 1 occupied block, as did the Lower Worcester Plateau. One Confirmation even came from the Boston Basin. The only real concentration of breeding chats occurred in the southeastern part of the state. The areas around Manomet, Sagamore, and Sandwich at the base of the Cape and Islands region accounted for 4 of the state’s 9 total occupied blocks. Two more Probable blocks were found along the coast in the Bristol/Narragansett Lowlands near Dartmouth.

Atlas 2 Distribution and Change

Perhaps due to a lack of early successional habitat, or perhaps simply because there were never many chats to begin with, this species barely registered as a breeder during the Atlas 2 surveys. Just 2 occupied blocks were discovered after five seasons of effort, only 1 of which was surveyed sufficiently well in both Atlases to provide a good comparison, but neither was able to produce any Confirmations. Whether Yellow-breasted Chats still breed annually in Massachusetts is uncertain. For a species that never robustly colonized the state in the first place, the species may simply represent a flirtation with northward expansion.


Atlas 1 Map

Atlas 2 Map

Atlas Change Map


Ecoregion Data

 Atlas 1Atlas 2Change
Ecoregion# Blocks% Blocks% of Range# Blocks% Blocks% of RangeChange in # BlocksChange in % Blocks
Taconic Mountains00.
Marble Valleys/Housatonic Valley00.
Berkshire Highlands00.
Lower Berkshire Hills00.
Vermont Piedmont00.
Berkshire Transition00.
Connecticut River Valley11.811.111.550.0-1-2.1
Worcester Plateau00.
Lower Worcester Plateau11.411.100.00.0-1-1.9
S. New England Coastal Plains and Hills00.
Boston Basin11.811.
Bristol and Narragansett Lowlands21.922.200.00.0-1-1.0
Cape Cod and Islands42.944.410.750.0-4-3.3
Statewide Total90.9100.020.2100.0-7-0.8


The Yellow-breasted Chat shows a significant declining Breeding Bird Survey trend in the New England/Mid-Atlantic Region and in the Eastern US overall.