The Chat is Back!

by Christine Bishop, Environment and Climate Change Canada

Feature photo by Jose Amorin

In 2000, the Western Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens auricollis) population in British Columbia (BC) was listed, under the Canadian Species At Risk Act, as Endangered.  Its already restricted population had drastically declined due to the loss of over 85% of its key nesting habitat—wild rose thickets—from the Okanagan and Similkameen valley systems, the only places that a substantial nesting population of chats has occurred in BC.

From 2001 to 2019, with funding support from the Government of Canada’s Department of Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Nature Trust of BC, the Lower Similkameen Indian Band, Osoyoos Indian Band, and the En’owkin Centre worked in partnership with the Penticton Indian Band and Locatee landowners on-reserve, to take action to recover the yellow-breasted chat populations in those valleys.

Color-banded Western Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens auricollis) in its preferred wild rose nesting habitat in the Okanagan Valley. Photo: René McKibbin

In the Okanagan valley alone, several key conservation initiatives significantly advanced population recovery. The Nature Trust worked with ranchers to fence 69 km of riparian habitat resulting in a total of 455 ha of riparian habitat protected from grazing livestock. In exchange for fencing, ranchers provided alternate watering sources and allowed their site to be monitored to measure avian and vegetation response. The En’owkin Centre’s habitat protection and restoration activities at the ECOmmunity Place Locatee Lands on the Penticton Indian Reserve resulted in the increase of the local yellow-breasted chat breeding population from a single bird detected on a 1 unprotected land parcel in 2001, to 19 active breeding territories across a complex of 7 protected Locatee parcels on-reserve in 2019. These and other collaborative recovery actions have resulted in the ten-fold increase of this near extirpated population, from 25 pairs in the Okanagan valley in 2001, to 250 pairs in 2019.

The conservation actions that began in 2001, are part of an expanding multi-national collaboration involving Syilx Traditional Ecological Knowledge Keepers in Canada, researchers from the Klamath Bird Observatory, the San Pancho Bird Observatory, University of  Guadalajara, and Tierra de Aves in Mexico, and Canadian academic partners Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia. This collaborative team has used colour-banding, radio telemetry, geolocators, gps loggers, nest productivity monitoring, and territory vegetation analysis to track chat population response to habitat restoration activities, identify key breeding habitats in Canada, identify overwintering habitats in western Mexico, and determine vital migration routes and stop-over points along the Pacific Flyway.

Continued support from Environment and Climate Change Canada has been essential to determining and tracking key vital rates and population viability, setting population recovery goals, and identifying critical habitat to protect and restore. Beginning in 2018, Environment and Climate Change Canada, also began to fund projects to address international threats to migratory birds, as part of the Government of Canada’s Canada Nature Fund.  With this support, the San Pancho Bird Observatory, the University of Guadalajara, and Klamath Bird Observatory are working with communities and landowners to conserve overwintering habitat for the yellow-breasted chat as well as shared migratory bird species.

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