A Taxonomic Mystery and a Very Handsome Bird

Alaska doesn’t have Yellow-breasted Chat, which is a pity because they are very handsome birds.

Their song – songs, really – are even more impressive, and make it obvious how the bird got the second part of its name.


And yet the bird is famously hard to see. For a big birds – about 6.5 inches long – it’s difficult to find in the field. It spends most of its time in very thick brush in riparian habitat, rarely emerging. You hear this species far more often than you see it. Except that the males sing to establish territories in the spring. And sometimes actually come out in the open to sing.

This particular male was surrounded by other males, also singing along Cottonwood Creek, all within a few hundred meters of each other. It seemed like his head was spinning around as he tried to scope out his rivals. But he held the perch long enough to allow WC, for the first time, to get some decent photos.

Perhaps a little more importantly, they are the subject of intense quarrels about their taxonomic classification. At various times, ornithology has thought they were thrushes, like a robin; wood-warblers, like a Yellow Warbler, and icterids, like a Red-winged Blackbird or a Western Meadowlark. Birds of North America, with its usual scholarly understatement, says, “Considerable controversy has surrounded the question of this species’ taxonomic placement.” Ahem.

Finally, in 2017, the Yellow-breasted Chat was elevated to its own family, Icteriidae.1 Where it is the only member of the family. Taxonomically, its sits between Towhees (a kind of sparrow) and tanagers. There seem to be two subspecies, with the one in the West sometimes called the Long-tailed Chat.

Yellow-breasted Chat, Boise, Idaho

Yellow-breasted Chat, Boise, Idaho

But despite the taxonomic changes, this is beautiful bird and WC is very pleased to finally have decent photos of it.


  1. Not to be confused with Icteridae, the family of birds that includes blackbirds, meadowlarks, grackles and orioles. Icteridae/Icteriidae. WC thinks the American Ornithological Union does this kind of stuff just to make birding even more confusing. Oh, wait. The American Ornithological Union was merged with the Cooper Ornithological Society in 2016 to create the American Ornithological Society. Which proves WC’s point.