Icteria virens virens, I. v. auricollis

Status:  Uncommon, locally common, regular breeder and spring and fall migrant west and central, rare casual elsewhere.

Documentation:  Specimens: auricollis, UNSM ZM6909, 3 Jun 1901 Monroe Canyon, Sioux Co; virens, UNSM ZM10757, 15 May 1909 Roca, Lancaster Co.

Taxonomy: Recent genetic studies resulted in elevation of this species to its own family, Icteriidae; it is no longer considered a member of Parulidae (Chesser et al 2017).

There are two subspecies recognized (Eckerle and Thompson 2020): auricollis, breeding from the western Great Plains (including southern Saskatchewan) and west Texas westward, and virens, breeding in the eastern portion of the range, from the eastern Great Plains (northeast South Dakota; AOU 1957) and central Texas (Fort Worth, Houston; AOU 1957) eastward.

Both subspecies breed in Nebraska, although the breeding population in southeastern Nebraska, presumably virens, has declined in recent years and appears to have been extirpated (see Summer). Some of the few recent reports in the east may be of western auricollis; a specimen of auricollis that had probably died 26 Sep 2018 was picked up on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus 28 Sep 2018 (Thomas Labedz, pers. comm.).  There are two old specimen records of auricollis in the east: one (UNSM ZM6912) from Adams Co 10 May 1919 (Jorgensen 2012), and another (HMM 2634-A) from Clay Co 18 May 1920 (Jorgensen 2012; Swenk 1940). On the other hand, an apparent virens as far west as Ash Hollow SHP, Garden Co was photographed 27 May 2019 (Steven Mlodinow, and another was near Oshkosh, Garden Co 4 Jun 2020 (

Changes since 2001: This species was essentially extirpated from the southeast by 2000, but since then reports have increased. Of 27 southeasterly reports for May-Jul for 1981 through 2017, 22 have occurred since 2008.

Spring:  Apr 25, 26, 28 <<<>>> summer

Spring migrants arrive in late Apr and are common in the west, but there are few reports in the east.

Recent increases in the number of eastern reports suggest a return of virens to its former range, although there is no documentation as yet of the subspecies involved. One in the observer’s Dixon Co yard 21 May 2009 was the first there since 1996 (Jan Johnson, pers. comm.), one was at Arbor Day Farm, Otoe Co 8 May 2011, and one in Dakota Co 28 May 2013 was the veteran observer’s first for that county (Bill F. Huser, pers. comm.). In 2014 there was a surprising influx: singles were in Omaha, Douglas Co 16 May, southeast Washington Co 18 May, and 1-2 were at Indian Cave SP, Nemaha and Richardson Cos 30 May and 1 Jun. In 2015 also, several were reported: 21 May Stanton Co, 17 May Platte Co, and 11 May Douglas Co. One was in Lancaster Co 14 May 2016, and in 2018 singles were in Lincoln, Lancaster Co 15-16 May and at Wood Duck WMA, Stanton Co 11 May. In 2019, singles were at Niobrara SP, Knox Co 14 May, in Pierce Co 18 May, at Little Blue WMA, Thayer Co 18 May, and in Polk Co 16 May. In 2019, one was recorded at Frank Shoemaker Marsh, Lancaster Co 21 May and another was at Table Rock WMA, Pawnee Co 21-31 May.

  • High counts:  22 at Rock Creek SRA, Dundy Co 26 May 2019, 14 in Sowbelly Canyon, Sioux Co 16 May 2018, 9 there 21 May 1996, and 9 at Ponderosa WMA, Dawes Co 28 May 2020.

Summer: This species was formerly considered to be most common in the eastern part of the state; Bruner et al (1904) listed it as “abundant” along the eastern edge. By 1958, Rapp et al (1958) described the species as fairly common throughout, but most numerous in the east, especially in the Missouri River Valley, but also in the valleys of the Little Blue and Elkhorn rivers (Swenk 1940). As late as the 1970s, it was distributed statewide (Johnsgard 1979), but numbers of Yellow-breasted Chats declined significantly range-wide during 1966–1988 (-1.33%, p < 0.01), mostly in the eastern USA (-2.06%, p < 0.01; Sauer and Droege 1992, Eckerle and Thompson 2020), including eastern Nebraska (Sharpe et al 2001).  Although Ducey (1988) has proposed that destruction of nesting areas along the Missouri River due to riverside development as a cause for this decline, an additional explanation is that this eastern population, presumably virens, experienced limiting factors that reduced numbers in its wintering range similar to those experienced by other eastern neotropical migrants (Terborgh 1989). Chat numbers in eastern Kansas declined to near-absence by 1992 (Thompson et al 2011). As noted above (see Spring), reports in the southeast have increased in recent years.

The situation in the east is in strong contrast with the Panhandle and north; chats are locally common throughout the western half of the state, eastward in the Niobrara River Valley to Rock Co (James E. Ducey, pers. comm.) and Knox Co, where it is uncommon, with recent records 8 Jun 2005, 9 Jun-16 Jul 1990, six on 9 Jul 2008, and 22-29 Jul 1989. There is a recent report 10 Jun 2015 at Bow Creek WMA, Cedar Co. Chats are reported every year in the eastern Niobrara River Valley (Brogie and Mossman 1983, Rosche 1982).  This species is “increasing every year” in Scotts Bluff Co as of 2017; 12 were counted along Old Stage Road 8 Jul 2017, and 16 were at Soldier Creek Wilderness, Sioux Co 19 Jun 2017.

Yellow-breasted Chat is common in the southwest and Republican Valley, with concentrations around the southwestern reservoirs, especially Red Willow Reservoir, Frontier Co, but is rare east as far as Harlan Co. Recently, three birds were found 12 Jun 1999 along the south side of Harlan Co Reservoir, and singles were there 6 Jul 2009, 27 Jun 2015, 1 Jun 2017, and two birds west of Alma 7 Jul 2007 were at “the only reliable spot in the county” (Glen and Wanda Hoge, pers. comm.). Four were at the latter location 26 Jun 2008 and five on 25 Jun 2011. Significant were sightings as far east as Red Cloud and Inavale in Webster Co 7 Jun 2009.

Reports in the east in the 2000s are recent, in parallel with the increasing Spring records; of the eight records, most along the Missouri River Valley, four were in 2019: 4-19 Jun 2020 Table Rock WMA, Pawnee Co, 8 Jun 2019 two at Indian Cave SP which behaved as though nesting, 9 Jun 2010 Peru Bottoms, Nemaha Co, 13 Jun 2019 Otoe Co, 23 Jun 2011 Arbor Day Farm, Otoe Co, 27 Jun 2012 Spring Creek Prairie, Lancaster Co, 2 Jul 2019 Cedar Co, 11 Jul 2019 Dakota Co, and 25 Jul 2015 Lincoln, Lancaster Co.

  • Breeding phenology:
    Nest building: 8-10 Jun
    Eggs: 3 Jun- 6 Jul
    Fledglings: 3 Jul
  • High counts: 26 in Carter Canyon, Scotts Bluff Co 16 Jun 2020.

Fall:  summer <<<>>> Oct 6,6,9

Departure is protracted, with most birds gone by early Oct, but there are later dates 16 Oct 1961 Cass Co and 27 Oct 1960 Cass Co.

Recent mid-late Jul reports in the southeast may be early migrants from breeding locations (Eckerle and Thompson 2020; these are 16 Jul 2008 Otoe Co, 21 Jul 2003 DeSoto NWR, Washington Co, 21 Jul 2000 extreme southwest Saunders Co, 25 Jul 1997 Merrick Co, 25 Jul 2015 Lancaster Co, and 28 Jul Antelope Co. There are these few easterly fall reports since the 1980s: 3 Sep 2000 Smartweed WMA, Nuckolls Co (Jorgensen 2012), 10 Sep 2000 Summit Reservoir, Burt Co, 13 Sep 2017 Nuckolls Co, 14 Sep 2014 Dixon Co, and 6 Oct 2014 Saunders Co.

  • High counts: 8 in Carter Canyon 1 Sep 2000, 5 there 7 Sep 2018, 4 at Chadron SP, Dawes Co 8 Sep 2015, and 4 at Chadron SP 1-2 Sep 2017.


HMM: Hastings Municipal Museum
NWR: National Wildlife Refuge
SP: State Park
WMA: Wildlife Management Area (State)


Photograph (top) of a Yellow-breasted Chat in Box Butte Co 24 May 2012 by Phil Swanson.

Literature Cited

American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1957. The AOU Check-list of North American birds, 5th ed.  Port City Press, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.

Brogie, M.A., and M.J. Mossman. 1983. Spring and summer birds of the Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska: An annotated checklist. NBR 51: 44-51.

Bruner, L., R.H. Wolcott, and M.H. Swenk. 1904. A preliminary review of the birds of Nebraska, with synopses. Klopp and Bartlett, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

Chesser, R.T., K.J. Burns, C. Cicero, J.L. Dunn, A.W. Kratter, I.J. Lovette, P.C. Rasmussen, J. V. Remsen, Jr., J.D. Rising, D.F. Stotz, and K. Winker. 2017. Fifty-eighth supplement to the American Ornithological Society’s Check-list of North American Birds. Auk 134: 751-773.

Ducey, J.E. 1988. Nebraska birds, breeding status and distribution. Simmons-Boardman Books, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

Eckerle, K.P. and C.F. Thompson. 2020. Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Johnsgard, P.A. 1979. Birds of the Great Plains: breeding species and their distribution.  University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Jorgensen, J.G. 2012.  Birds of the Rainwater Basin, Nebraska.  Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Rapp, W.F. Jr., J.L.C. Rapp, H.E. Baumgarten, and R.A. Moser. 1958. Revised checklist of Nebraska birds. Occasional Papers 5, Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union, Crete, Nebraska, USA.

Rosche, R.C. 1982. Birds of northwestern Nebraska and southwestern South Dakota, an annotated checklist. Cottonwood Press, Crawford, Nebraska, USA.

Sauer, J.R., and S. Droege. 1992. Geographic patterns in population trends of Neotropical migrants in North America. In Ecology and Conservation of Neotropical Migrant Landbirds (J. M. Hagan III and D. W. Johnston, Editors). Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., USA. pp. 26-42.

Sharpe, R.S., W.R. Silcock, and J.G. Jorgensen. 2001. The Birds of Nebraska: Their Distribution and Temporal Occurrence.  University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Swenk, M.H. 1940. Distribution and migration of the Chat in Nebraska and other Missouri Valley states.  NBR 8: 33-44.

Terborgh, J. 1989. Where have all the birds gone? Essays on the biology and conservation of birds that migrate to the American tropics. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, USA.

Thompson, M.C., C.A. Ely, B. Gress, C. Otte, S.T. Patti, D. Seibel, and E.A. Young. 2011. Birds of Kansas.  University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, USA.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen.  2020.  Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens). In Birds of Nebraska — Online.

Birds of Nebraska – Online

Updated 1 Sep 2020