Meander bends of many large, sand-bed meandering rivers are partitioned by chute channels that convey permanent flow, and co-exist with the mainstem for decades. As a first step toward understanding the dynamics and morphodynamic implications of these ‘bifurcate meander bends’, this study applied binary logistic regression analysis to determine whether it is possible to predict chute initiation based on attributes of meander bend character and dynamics. Regression models developed for the Strickland River, Papua New Guinea, the lower Paraguay River, Paraguay/Argentina, and the Beni River, Bolivia, revealed that the probability of chute initiation at a meander bend is a function of the bend extension rate (the rate at which a bend elongates in a direction perpendicular to the valley axis trend). Image analyses of all rivers and field observations from the Strickland suggest that the majority of chute channels form during scroll–slough development. Rapid extension is shown to favour chute initiation by breaking the continuity of point bar deposition and vegetation encroachment at the inner bank, resulting in widely-spaced scrolls with intervening sloughs that are positively aligned with primary over-bar flow. The rivers plot in order of increasing chute activity on an empirical meandering-braided pattern continuum defined by potential specific stream power (ωpv) and bedload calibre (D50). Increasing stream power is considered to result in higher bend extension rates, with implications for chute initiation. In addition, chute stability is shown to depend on river sediment load relative to flow discharge (Qs/Q), such that while the Beni may plot in the region of highly braided rivers by virtue of a high potential specific stream power, the formation of stable chute channels is suppressed by the high sediment load. This tendency is consistent with previous experimental studies, and results in a planform that is transitional between single-thread meandering and braided. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.