Yellow-Breasted Chats in your neighborhood
Have you seen a ﬂash of yellow or heard loud whistles, chatters and squawks coming from dense, tangled thickets on your property? If so, you may be lucky enough to have a Yellow-breasted Chat living nearby! This colourful bird is endangered and needs special attention to prevent it from disappearing in British Columbia.
Yellow-breasted Chats are about 18 cm (7 inches) long, which is about the size of a bluebird. They have a very recognisable bright yellow throat and breast and white “spectacles” around the eyes. Thee back and tail are an olive green-grey colour with a white belly and undertail. Their bill is black and and relatively thick.
Female Chats (bottom) look very similar, but the yellow breast is paler.
Chats are rarely seen, preferring to skulk around in the middle of dense rose thickets, but their chaotic song is recognisable in its lack of structure, made of a collection of whistles, cackles, mews, caw notes, chuckles, and squawks, which they repeat and string together with great variety.
What's the big deal about Chats?
Chats were once relatively common in the South Okanagan and South Similkameen valleys. However their numbers began to decline in the 1960s. In 2001 there were only 25 known breeding pairs in BC. Due to conservation efforts by various organizations, that number was reported to have increased ten-fold in 2019. While this is good news, chats are still endangered and require significant protection.
Why are they Endangered?
Chats live in dense thickets of wild rose and snowberry in forested riparian habitats along creeks and wetlands. This type of habitat was once very plentiful but since the late 1930s, development from urban sprawl, agriculture, and flood control has reduced the amount of riparian areas in the South Okanagan by more than 85 percent! The remaining patches of riparian forest left have been fragmented into small bits and degraded by activities like road building and livestock grazing.
There are a few other birds in the Okanagan and Similkameen that look like a Yellow-breasted Chat. Remember, Chats are only yellow on their neck and breast and they will always have white eye stripes on their faces. Can you spot the differences between the birds below and the Chats above?
Where are Chats found?
In B.C., chats are found mainly in riparian areas in the Okanagan valley bottom from Penticton south to Osoyoos Lake, but can also be found in the lower Similkameen valley. They are here in the summer and migrate south for the winter. While here, Chats will only live in riparian areas. This is because they need the dense thickets of rose and snowberry bushes found in these areas to help shelter their nests from predators.
What does "riparian" mean?
Riparian habitat is the thick shrubby areas that grow along and near our rivers, lakes, creeks, and wetlands. This diverse community of plants creates a large area of thick forested habitat around water sources which is vitally important for nearly three-quarters of all Okanagan wildlife. In addition to Yellow-breasted Chats, many other Endangered species like Western Screech-owls and Salmon are dependent on riparian habitats.
Some common native riparian plants:
Willow species (not Weeping Willow)
Wild Rose species
How can we help Chats?
A huge portion of the riparian habitat left in the Okanagan and the Similkameen Valley is on privately owned land. These landowners have a critical role to play in helping Yellow-breasted Chats. By working with conservation groups, you can help to ensure the future of the chat population and healthy riparian ecosystems.
Landowners can help in the following ways:
Take care of riparian woodlands on your property. You can even restore destroyed or damaged habitats by planting chat-friendly native trees and shrubs (see above). Sometimes just leaving healthy riparian areas alone is the best thing to do!
Do not use pesticides, or reduce your use of them as much as possible. Not only are insects vital to a Chat's diet, but pesticides also kill helpful predatory insects and pollinators.
Install fencing around creeks and wetlands to prevent livestock from trampling the vegetation. If water access is critical, a "nose-in" area can be built into the fence to help limit the impacts of livestock to just one or two small access points.
Do not build roads or stream crossings through riparian areas unless there is absolutely no other feasible option.