Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Noisy Outcast Pretty But Annoying

In every family there's a black sheep, usually. The yellow-breasted chat is that dude in the warbler family.

When you think of a warbler, you think of a small songster dressed in olive-greens, yellows, grays, blues and black and whites. The chat fits into the family as far as colors are concerned, but there his qualifications end.

His song, if you can call it a song, unlike that of any other warbler, is loud and fractious. Not only is the song unusual but the manner of singing is different. He flies from one bush to another while getting his garrulous message across. All the other little warblers' songs are soft and pleasing.

He is a full two inches larger than most warblers. He has a long tail like a mocker, a bill that is larger, heavier and more curved than the smaller warblers and his wings are shorter and rounded.

He's a handsome guy. He wears this year's fashionable olive-green on his back with a yellow shirt. His colors glisten in the golden sunlight. The white strip over his eye and his size distinguish him from the small yellow-throated vireo.

He prefers brushy habitats for his hangouts, the better to hide, for he is more often heard than seen.

The eccentric, ludicrous, almost clownish behavior is one of the chat's most outstanding characteristics. He hides in dense thickets and from this secluded place he sends out "bizarre noises", whistling, chuckling, barking, mewing, scolding and swearing. He gurgles, laughs, chatters, squeaks and cackles.

But wait, when the females arrive from the tropics his language changes. He finds some elevated perch and there pours out what melody he can muster. Then, pitching himself into the air . . . straight up . . . with wings fluttering and legs dangling limply like a Raggedy Ann doll, he lets fall from his yellow throat a wild, rich, rapturous love song. While he's courting he leaves off name calling.

Measuring 1 and 1/2 inches from the stout, arched bill to the long, rounded tail, this largest of all warblers is the good ole boy of the bird world. He's here now, joking and cat-calling and generally interrupting the sweet songs of other birds.

The chat claims a characteristic of the mockingbird and that is singing all night on moonlit nights, but the chat adds dark nights also to deliver his repertoire.

One chat observer says the olive-clad bird on her premises usually starts singing at 10:30 in the evening and keeps up his "noise" all through the night. The next morning she serves breakfast, accompanied by his squeaks and squawks. She serves the noon meal. The shrieking goes on and on. Sometime in the late afternoon the songster stops, apparently to rest up for his next performance at 10:30 that night.

Becoming involved with keeping four hungry nestlings satisfied, he quietens down. He's so quiet you might think he's left his tangled haunts, but he's still skulking around.

By late August, however, he heads south and calm once again reigns in thickets and tangles across the countryside.