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1-7 August 2001

Drawing: Hummingbird & FlowerDON'T MISS

Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of Hilton Pond Center, again will offer his entertaining and informative "Hummingbird Mornings" at Carolinas locales in July & August 2001. Click on the hummingbird drawing at left for details.

Cussing Like A . . . Chat

Even for seasoned naturalists like those at Hilton Pond Center, it's sometimes difficult to avoid being anthropomorphic when working with wildlife. And we try not to think of anything in nature as "cute" or "ugly," believing that natural beauty lies in function, not form. Nonetheless, we were reminded last week that some organisms have almost human-like habits--a few of which are less than desirable. What we're talking about here is the fact that animals can cuss, and some are better at it than others.

Yellow-breasted Chat male

All photos & text © Hilton Pond Center

We have heard litters of Short-tailed Weasel kits snarl and curse each other even before they were weaned, with no admonishment from their proud parents. The diminutive Southern Short-tailed Shrew can let go a few phrases upon occasion--especially when cornered or hungry. Irritated Gray Catbirds will swear--apparently in several languages--but in our judgment no animal is as profuse and proficient at cussing as the Yellow-breasted Chat.

Like catbirds, a chat will spew forth a blue streak if angered or threatened. This is almost understandable, but the Yellow-breasted Chat seems to indulge in cursing and ranting for the pure pleasure of it . . . just to hear itself cuss. Each spring we know migration is peaking when the cacophonous sound of cussing chats spills out of thickets around Hilton Pond. Usually the cursing is quiet--almost as if a bird is cussing under its breath--but every now and again a chat will cut loose with a series of loud epithets that would scorch the beard off a sailor.

Yellow-breasted Chat malePerhaps the worst tirade we've ever heard from a Yellow-breasted Chat came in late May ten years ago when we mist-netted an adult male (right). We suspect we captured this bird at a most inopportune time--perhaps when he was trying to woo a female chat. As we tried to remove him from the net, this chat not only turned the air blue with his language, he reddened our fingers with nips and bites from his slightly hooked bill. This particular bird must have had a Ph.D. in profanity, and if any female in the thicket was inclined to be impressed by a suitor who was a "great curser," she probably swooned at the sound.

Yellow-breasted Chats (Icteria virens) are correctly classified as Wood Warblers (Parulinae)--they look rather like a heavy-billed Common Yellowthroat on steroids--but despite DNA evidence to the contrary, some ornithologists still believe chats may really be blackbirds. (This would help explain the cussing behavior of chats; warblers typically sing, while blackbirds such as Common Grackles and Brown-headed Cowbirds are known to get a little profane at times.) Regardless, Yellow-breasted Chats are Neotropical migrants that breed across the eastern U.S. and more sparingly in western states. They winter in Mexico and Central America, but it is not known whether chats can swear in Spanish.

Yellow-breasted Chat maleThe sound of chats cussing has grown increasingly rare at Hilton Pond Center, and we think we may know why. In 1982 when the Center was established, it was largely an overgrown field that had been farmed and grazed for a century or more. Initially, there were no chats. We allowed natural succession to occur, and over the next decade Russian Olive and Japanese Privet formed the impenetrable thickets that chats seek out for nesting. In the early 1990s there were plentiful thickets and lots of chats--of the 128 we've banded since 1982, more than half of them (75) were captured in the four years from 1990-93--but we've only netted five since 1996, including two in 2001. A couple of things may have happened locally to bring about this decline: 1) natural succession has continued, and most of the Hilton Pond thickets have been shaded out by a canopy of larger trees, and 2) because privet and Russian Olive are invasive plants that choke out native flora, we have systematically tried to eliminate these foreign shrubs. In either case, the local habitat is changing, with Yellow-breasted Chats possibly suffering as a result. Add to that the likely loss of habitat on their wintering grounds, and it's no wonder the chats are cussing!

Whatever should we do? Keep the invasive plants at Hilton Pond Center and we get thickets laden with Yellow-breasted Chats, eliminate the privet and we get native shrubs and wildflowers. What a dilemma! It's enough to make even a seasoned naturalist cuss like a . . . chat!

All photos & text © Hilton Pond Center

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Yellow-breasted Chat female

Yellow-breasted Chat (adult female)
Lining of upper bill in adult female is light; compare with black bill lining of
adult male in photo at right above.


All photos & text © Hilton Pond Center

The following species were banded this week (1-7 August):

Ruby-throated Hummingbird--3*
White-eyed Vireo--1*
Chipping Sparrow--2
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher--1
Red-eyed Vireo--2*
Northern Cardinal--3*
Carolina Wren--6*
Yellow-breasted Chat--1
Downy Woodpecker--1
Red-bellied Woodpecker--1*

* = Includes at least one Recent Fledgling

(1-7 August 2001)
10 species
21 individuals

63 species
872 individuals
(since 28 June 1982)
122 species
39,155 individuals

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (1)
Chipping Sparrow (2)
Northern Cardinal (3)
--9th Year male
--8th year male

Red-bellied Woodpecker (fledgling)
Young birds lack any red on the head

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Made With MacintoshHilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Bill Hilton Jr., aka "The Piedmont Naturalist," it is the parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Contents of this website--including articles and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with the express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To obtain permission for use or for further assistance on accessing this website, contact: WEBMASTER.