Birds of Illinois
There are many types of animals in Illinois. Insects, spiders, fishes, frogs, turtles and mammals live here. Birds are animals, too. More than 400 species of wild birds live in, move through or make rare appearances in our state.
What Makes a Bird a Bird?
A bird is an animal with feathers, hard-shelled eggs and light, hollow bones.
Feathers are complex structures that generally comprise 15-20 percent of the weight of a bird. They are made of keratin, a protein that also composes a bird’s beak and claws. To learn more about feathers, see the
Kids for Conservation® February 2021 edition.
All wild birds in Illinois can fly, but they need more than feathers to be creatures of the sky. Extremely lightweight bones are also necessary for flight. Bird bones are strong and hollow with inside supports.
Birds are warm-blooded, meaning that their body temperature is controlled internally, not by the air or water temperature around it.
What Do They Eat?
Bird’s diets vary greatly depending on the species and even the time of year. They do not have teeth but do have specialized beaks for eating different types of food. You can learn more about bird beaks in the
January 2019 Kids for Conservation® edition.
Some birds eat berries, seeds, acorns and grains.
Other birds seek insects, spiders and other invertebrates for food.
Aquatic vegetation is eaten by some birds that wade in or float on water.
Some birds even hunt amphibians, reptiles, fishes and small mammals.
Some birds even eat other birds!
The American woodcock (Scolopax minor) uses its long bill to probe the soil for earthworms.
Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) feed mainly on dead animals.
Certain birds will feed at humanmade feeders. See the January 2017 Kids for Conservation® edition on Feeding Birds in Winter for more information.
How Do They Reproduce?
For most bird species that raise young in the state, mating takes place from late winter to late spring.
Eggs are laid by the female. Although the timing varies by species, young birds hatch from early spring to mid-summer.
Some bird species have more than one brood during a single reproductive season.
Depending on the species, young birds either feed themselves right away or are fed by one or both parents until the young bird fledges (leaves the nest).
Nests and Eggs
A bird’s nest can range from a marvelous feat of engineering to a pile of rocks! Nest materials used include sticks, rasses, mud, leaves, hair/fur, feathers and even spider webs and garbage.
The type of nest constructed or used varies by the species. Nests are used to hold eggs and the young that hatch from them.
Some birds build their nest on the ground or a rooftop.
Some birds build their nest on or in a tree.
Some birds build their nest on or near water.
Some bird species readily use humanmade structures for nesting.
Nest types include cavity, cup, ground, pendulous and platform.
Eggs are made of calcium carbonate. Calcium carbonate is a common substance found in rocks as the minerals calcite and aragonite and is the main component of pearls and the shells of marine organisms, snails and eggs. The hard shell keeps the egg from dehydrating and allows the parent to sit on the egg during incubation.
Colored and speckled eggs provide camouflage.
Blue or green eggs are laid by birds that nest in shady places, such as trees or shrubs. Eggs in these locations are less visible in the dappled sunlight. White eggs are laid by birds nesting in cavities. These eggs are not readily visible to potential predators.
Patterned eggs blend in with the substrate and are laid by birds that nest on the ground.
Do All Illinois Birds Fly?
All wild bird species in Illinois are capable of flight. Birds like the
wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) fly daily to get into or out of their roost tree but spend most of their day on the ground. They walk as they search and scratch for food, and they can run quickly when needed. Birds like the
common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) fly to hunt for food and are airborne often.
Blackpoll warblers (Setophaga striata) will migrate for three days straight from northern North America to northern South America.
Where Do Birds Live?
You can find birds in all Illinois habitats. Some live on the ground, and some live in trees. A few live on or near the water. Others prefer prairies or forests. Birds are found in cities, too.
Permanent resident birds live in Illinois all year.
Some birds migrate here from the south in the spring, raise young during the summer, migrate south in the fall and spend the winter in warmer climates.
Some birds migrate here in the fall from the north, spend the winter here and leave for areas farther north during the spring. These bird species do not raise young in Illinois.
Some birds just pass through during spring and fall migration.
Some birds, like the
mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) can be found in Illinois throughout the year, but the same birds are not present all year. Spring migration of mourning doves into Illinois from the south begins in late April. These doves spent the winter in states along the Gulf of Mexico and in Central America. They will nest in Illinois then start the journey south again in about September. Many doves seen in Illinois in late summer are migrants from farther north. Doves in Illinois in winter are mainly these birds that were raised in the northern United States and Canada.
How Big Are They?
Illinois’ smallest wild bird is the
ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). It averages three to three and three-quarter inches in length.
By comparison, one of the largest wild birds in Illinois is the
trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator). It is about five feet long with a wingspan of seven feet!
Birds communicate through songs and calls. Songs are specific patterns of notes repeated with few variations. They are used to attract mates and mark the territory necessary for reproduction and rearing of young. Each species has its own specific song or songs.
Calls are shorter than songs and not as complex in pattern. They can be made by the same structures in a bird as the song, or they may be made by other body parts. Calls are also made when birds are feeding or migrating. Precocial (independent) young communicate with their parents through a location call. See the
October 2019 Kids for Conservation edition on Bird Songs and Calls for more information.
According to the
Illinois Ornithological Society, there are 21 orders and 62 bird families in the state. A total of 451 species and two species groups have been officially recorded in Illinois as of March 2020. Of these species, 89 are considered accidental occurrences (species for which there are either less than six records in the state or less than three records in the past ten years), three are extirpated from Illinois and three are extinct.