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Yellow-breasted Chats

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Next, New-York Historical Society's Curator of Drawings Roberta Olson pulled out the yellow-breasted chats. Oh, how did she know how I loved that painting? It was exquisite—the depth and delicacy of the nest in particular.  Not to question the master, but I’m not sure he’s got the proportions right—the female chat seems to be buried in her nest. Chats do build a big, bulky nest but she looks quite swallowed up by this construction. Nevertheless…look at the ring of rosies around that exquisite nest. Nests are very difficult to do well. This one, aside from the proportions, is irreproachable.

Here's a photo by my patient friends Richard and Susan Day that shows chats with their nest. It's a big, deep nest, but not perhaps quite as big around or deep as Audubon showed it. 
Photo courtesy of Richard and Susan Day, Daybreak Imagery
Roberta said that this work is one of her favorites, too, for the way that Audubon tells the whole story of courtship and nesting in one painting. Of course male chats would not be displaying right over an occupied nest, but she said she thinks of it more in a comic-strip way, that Audubon is telling the story of the male’s courtship, which culminates in a nest with the male feeding his mate as she incubates their eggs. You’ll see that in another painting, coming up.

Roberta pointed out that the belly-up male chat does not appear in the final print. Audubon got a lot of flak from ornithologists of the day for his exuberant poses, which he got from the living birds, as well as from the birds he wired to his drawing board. Having lived with breeding chats around our yard for 18 years, I can attest that they do fling themselves up into the air when they start their butterfly display flight. How frustrating it must have been for Audubon to have to tone down what he knew to be right and true, in order to satisfy an audience that was both more conservative and less experienced than he.

 I had a lovely ink drawing of an American redstart, flinging itself up into the air after a leafhopper, that was rejected by the ornithologist for whose species account I drew it, because “redstarts never do that.” Oh. How odd that an ornithologist would employ the word “never” when referring to the movements of our most acrobatic and agile warbler. I’ve seen redstarts fling themselves straight up, straight down in a flurry of wings and tail, turning themselves inside out—whatever it takes to catch the insect. But however much the artist grumbles, the client is always right, so I did another drawing.


Chats are one of my very favorite songbirds. Their cacophony of sounds always makes me chortle and wonder about their sanity... as they no doubt wonder about mine, when I try to imitate them.

I was watching a ruby crowned kinglet picking bugs out of an autumn olive. He would put his wings out across the branches, stretch forward and seemingly "surf" the bush to capture his prey. I was amazed, but managed to get only a few blurry images as it was early morning and we were in the shade.

I have no doubt that Adubon was right, as you were about your redstart. Too often those who think they know everything quickly dismiss anything they haven't seen themselves. Just ask Jane Goodall about that! I myself don't think it wise to ever say never when it comes to our winged and furred friends.

Love this post--exquisite painting, photo and ink sketch. Most of all I enjoyed the discussion of "never", a word easily flung about but seldom accurate. Every day can bring a new observation, especially when you're seeing the behavior of a familiar species with fresh eyes.

One thing that birds will teach you is to never say never. Marvelous drawing you made. I am sure Mr Audubon would be appreciate your efforts.

Love it! Observation trumping "expertise"! Dueling experts! Contradictory literature! I'd love to read or write a whole book on the topic. Most of all I love stories of scientists tipped off by "local farm boys" of some unusual animal behavior that leads to a "great discovery" (sort of like Columbus "discovering" America)!

I came across a peculiar controversy over which of a tadpole's arms pops out first: left or right. Watched and watched (through a binocular microscope) until I think I have an answer: that it's USUALLY the left -- because the opening for the gills on that side makes it easier -- but not ALWAYS. Experts: am I right? :-)

Too bad I wasn't your client! I saw my first American redstart this fall; it was throwing itself around our silver maple in puruit of bugs. I actually though there was something wrong with it until I read about its behaviour (clearly not an account written by your client). Anyway, your picture pretty much captures my redstart experience.

Oh, the Yellow-breasted Chat: The one bird we failed to see on a birding trip to Ohio a few years ago. It's still at the top of my "must-see" list. Guess I'll have to go back to Ohio!

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