Illinois is home, or a breeding ground, to over 450 different birds, so you’re sure to spot a great variety of interesting, beautiful, and potentially unique birds throughout both Northern and Southern Illinois.
In fact, what’s great about Illinois is that you can spot some amazing birds just while walking around. And you can go hiking and birdwatching in any of the 123 protected areas throughout Illinois, which includes state parks, wildlife refuges, nature reserves, and state forests.
Follow along as we go through some of the best spots for finding the most beautiful birds in Illinois.
We then look at some of the rarest birds across the state, then look at birds of Northern Illinois and then birds of Southern Illinois! Throughout we will show you photos and explain the best places to see these birds too.
But First: Chicago’s Bird Sanctuaries
Chicago is home to three bird sanctuaries that allow you to birdwatch a large variety of birds without having to venture too far from a large city or into rugged terrain. They’re perfect spots where you’re almost guaranteed to see specific birds of your choosing, and you may even see some surprise visitors.
They’re best visited during the spring and fall migratory seasons, as very few birds breed in these sanctuaries.
They are Montrose Bird Sanctuary, McCormick Bird Sanctuary, and Bill Jarvis Bird Sanctuary. Some of the birds you’ll spot at those fantastic locations include:
- LeConte’s Sparrow
- Black-Bellied Plover
- American Golden-Plover
- Northern Saw-Whet Owl
- Black-Headed Gull
- Snowy Owl
- Lapland Longspur
- Peregrine Falcon
- Red-Throated Loon
- Long-Tailed Duck
Illinois Most Beautiful Birds
1. Northern Cardinal
The Northern Cardinal is the official state bird of Illinois and is a medium-sized songbird, measuring up to 9 inches long with a 12-inch wingspan and weighing up to 65 grams.
It has primarily crimson red feathers, with a black face and throat. The red becomes darker on its back and wings. The females are a more muted brownish color with red tints on their wings.
Northern Cardinals are fiercely territorial, especially in spring and summer. In fact some have been known to spend hours fighting themselves in mirrors or other reflective surfaces when they think another bird is in their territory!
Northern Cardinals live year-round all over Illinois in woodlands, brush or weedy areas. They will even be found in urban parks and gardens, especially if you have a bird feeder.
These Illinois birds are not endangered and can be found throughout the state in urban, rural, and forest areas.
2. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are among the most common hummingbirds found in Illinois during summer. They can grow to 3.5 inches long with a wingspan of 4 inches and weigh up to 6 grams, so they are a tiny bird.
Males have shiny metallic green upper feathers, grey-white under feathers, and have a red throat patch which is where their name comes from. Females look similar but have a grey-white throat patch, similar to their under feathers.
These hummingbirds are solitary and only meet up to mate; otherwise, they are aggressive towards other hummingbirds at all other times. They will defend their territories from other hummingbirds trying to enter.
The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird migrates through or spends summers in Illinois. You can find these Illinois birds in flowering gardens or woodland edges, and they love to find nectar feeders in backyards.
Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds are not endangered and will be commonly found throughout Illinois in summer.
3. Red Crossbills
Red Crossbills are a small songbird growing up to 8 inches long with a wingspan of 11 inches and weighing up to 55 grams. They are extremely brightly colored birds with various colors, including red or orange males, and green or yellow females.
The size of their beaks and even calls they make can vary a lot, so it’s often challenging to determine if you see a Red Crossbill if you’re not familiar with the species. One distinctive feature is that the mandibles, or top and bottom bills, cross at the tips.
The Red Crossbill can be found in mature evergreen forests, especially Spruce, Douglas-fir, and Hemlock. One of the best places to find these Illinois birds is Van Patten Woods Forest Preserve.
Red Crossbills are not endangered and can be found throughout most areas of Illinois that have evergreen forests.
4. Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-headed woodpeckers are distinctly tri-colored, with a red head, black back and wings, and a white chest and belly. Males and females look exactly the same, including their size, where they can grow to 10 inches long with a 17-inch wingspan and weigh up to 100 grams.
They’re great planners for the harsh winters in Illinois, and store food away in tree crevices to get them through the winter.
The Red-headed woodpecker can be found throughout Illinois year-round. The best places to find these Illinois birds are in mature woodlands and forests containing oak and beech that have clearings and lots of dead or dying trees for them to peck into.
Red-headed Woodpeckers are not endangered and can be found throughout Illinois year-round. They were previously a near-threatened species with a 65% decline over 40 years, but habitat protection has been put in place, and the species has seen an increase in the past few years.
Illinois Rarest Birds
Bobolink are a small blackbird, reaching 8 inches long with an 11-inch wingspan and weighing up to 30 grams. They have a reverse tuxedo appearance, with a black belly, chest, face, and a white back, and also have a yellow crown that runs down their neck.
The Bobolinks song is a favorite amongst birdwatchers because it’s so bubbly and energetic.
While migrating, the Bobolink flocks will feed on grains, making them a significant pest for farmers. During the summer months, they forage near the ground for seeds and insects and have a particular interest in eating armyworm moths.
Your best bet for seeing the Bobolink is by visiting Orland Park or Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie from spring to fall. These Illinois birds prefer open grassy fields or even better, hay fields.
The Bobolink is not listed as an endangered species. However, it has seen a sharp decline of 1.5% in recent years due to habitat loss and is becoming much rarer to see in Illinois.
2. Red Knot
The Red Knot is a medium-sized shorebird, growing up to 10 inches long with a 21-inch wingspan and weighing up to 200 grams. It has a stocky body, short legs, and beak, with a small head. During winter, it will be mostly grey, but during summer, it will get a cinnamon-colored face, throat, and chest.
Red Knots are migratory and have one of the furthest migrations of any bird. During summer, they will eat spiders and insects, but in winter and during their migration they rely heavily on horseshoe crab eggs being available, and the lack of this food source can be a significant issue for them.
You may have the opportunity to see the Red Knot probing for food in the mud along Lake Michigan in the Illinois Beach State Park, from spring to fall.
Overall, the Red Knot is near-threatened, but is considered endangered in Illinois. The biggest threats to it are overharvesting of its food sources, such as horseshoe crabs, and climate change that affects its breeding grounds.
3. Northern Harrier
Northern Harriers are medium birds of prey with long tails and large wings; they can grow up to 20 inches long with a wingspan of 47 inches and weigh up to 750 grams. Females are often heavier and slightly larger than males.
Males have grey upper feathers and white speckled lower feathers with black rings on their wings and tails. The females are primarily brown. Both males and females have a white lower back or rump.
You’ll find Northern Harriers flying low over long grassy fields listening for small mammals to eat; once found, they’ll eat them on the ground. You may also spot these Illinois birds on fence posts or low tree branches.
Northern Harriers prefer open fields with tall vegetation for nesting and hunting; they prefer areas with large mice populations.
There are still some breeding grounds in a few Illinois counties, including Champaign, DuPage, Grundy, Jasper, Marion, McHenry, Pike, Randolph, Saline, Vermillion, Will, and Winnebago.
Northern Harriers are not endangered globally but are considered endangered in Illinois, with very few nesting and only a few found during migrations.
4. Yellow Cardinal
Yellow Cardinals are not true cardinals like the Northern Cardinal but get their name from the dark green crest on their forehead. They’re a mostly olive-yellow color with a black face and can be up to 9 inches long with a 12-inch wingspan and weigh up to 65 grams.
It’s unknown whether the rare Yellow Cardinal is the same as found in South America or whether the sightings are due to mutations of local birds. However, the sightings have been increasing since 2018.
Yellow Cardinals have been spotted in Rushville and surrounding areas in winter, starting around 2018. It may be unlikely that you’ll spot one, but they will be living in the evergreen trees during winter.
The Yellow Cardinal is endangered, with around 1,000 – 2,000 estimated globally. They are mainly from South America but have started to appear in Illinois in small numbers.
Its most significant threats are habitat loss and entrapment by pet trade trappers looking to sell them.
Birds Of Northern Illinois
1. American Goldfinch
Amerian Goldfinch are a small migratory bird, though they can be found year-round in Northern Illinois. They can grow to 5.5 inches long with a 9-inch wingspan and weigh up to 20 grams.
Males are bright yellow with a black cap and white rump, while the females are brown with a yellow chest.
Unlike many other birds, the American Goldfinch has significantly benefited from humans and has adapted well to living in urban areas. These Northern Illinois birds especially enjoy visiting any backyards that have birdfeeders in them!
American Goldfinches are one of the most common birds in Northern Illinois. The best places to find them are the Chicago Botanical Gardens or any of the local urban parks. They can also be found in many open areas with a lot of weeds, such as fields, meadows, orchards, or even your backyard.
The American Goldfinch is not endangered and is very common in Illinois throughout the entire year.
2. Blue Jay
The Blue Jay is a very loud and colorful songbird. It’s primarily bright blue with white chest, belly, and cheeks. It can grow up to 12 inches long with a 17-inch wingspan and weigh up to 95 grams.
While its appearance is lavender-blue, this is not due to pigments but light trickery. If you crush a Blue Jay’s feather, it will no longer appear to be blue.
Blue Jays are slow, so many predatory birds will attack them. However, if a Blue Jay spots a predator, it will let out a thunderous call that will alert other birds in the area who will then have a chance to hide.
Blue Jays are found mainly in Northern Illinois, though they may migrate south in winter. One of the best places to find them is the Chicago Botanical Gardens. Otherwise, you can find these Northern Illinois birds in mixed woodlands, including Oak, Beech, and Pinewood forests. With deforestation, they have also moved to urban parks and wooded areas.
Blue Jays are not endangered and are common throughout Northern Illinois and can sometimes be found in Southern Illinois during winter.
3. Black-capped Chickadee
The Black-capped Chickadee is a small songbird, measuring around 6 inches with an 8-inch wingspan and weighing up to 14 grams. It has a black cap on its head and black throat. It has grey upper feathers, with white to rusty under feathers too.
Black-capped chickadees have 13 different songs or calls, which are considered highly complex and an evolutionary trait to convey a lot of information to other Chickadees.
They can also mate with other types of Chickadees when their habitats overlap, such as the Carolina Chickadee and Mountain Chickadee.
These birds of Northern Illinois are found in woodlands, shrubs, residential areas, and parks in Northern Illinois only. They do not migrate, so they can be found year-round. Many locals set up bird feeders to attract them to their backyards.
The Black-capped Chickadee is not threatened and is one of the most common birds found throughout Northern Illinois.
4. Downy Woodpecker
The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker in North America, measuring up to 7 inches long with a wingspan of 12 inches and weighing up to 33 grams!
It has primarily black upper feathers, though it has a white back with a white belly and some white spotting on its wings.
They’re a natural predator of the European corn borer, which is good news for crop farmers looking to protect their crops from these moths.
Downy Woodpeckers can be found in most forested areas and even come to urban parks and backyards for the bird feeders that people leave out for them.
These Northern Illinois birds are not endangered and are relatively common.
Birds Of Southern Illinois
1. Prothonotary Warbler
Prothonotary Warblers are brightly colored songbirds with a sweet song that will be easy to hear. They have a bright yellow head, chest, and abdomen, with a green-olive back and blue-grey wings. They can be 5 inches long with a 9-inch wingspan and weigh up to 13 grams.
It’s the only warbler in the Eastern United States that will make nests in both natural and artificial cavities, such as woodpecker holes in trees or an old tin cup if anybody leaves one around purposefully. Milk cartons are also a preferred option for them.
You’ll find the Prothonotary Warbler in stagnant water areas with hardwood trees such as the swamplands of Southern Illinois. Your best chances of spotting them are in Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge and Pine Hills-La Rue Ecological Area between March and September.
These Southern Illinois birds are not endangered, but it’s unlikely you will find any in Northern Illinois.
2. Carolina Chickadee
Carolina Chickadees are a small 5-inch songbird with a wingspan of 8 inches and weighing up to 12 grams. Their heads are black along with their throats, with a grey back and white to rusty brown sides and bellies.
The Carolina Chickadees and the Black-capped Chickadees are closely related but diverged millions of years ago, with the Carolina Chickadees mainly in Southern Illinois and the Black-capped Chickadees in Northern Illinois; however, they do mate where their habitats overlap.
These Southern Illinois birds do have a few different songs and calls, but the most famous is the chick-a-dee-dee-dee call that gives them their names.
The Carolina Chickadee prefers rural areas, so it is not often seen in cities but will be found in most evergreen hardwood forests throughout Southern Illinois. They do not migrate, so they will be found year-round.
Carolina Chickadees are not threatened and are commonly found throughout most Southern Illinois. It’s a common bird you will spot when birdwatching.
3. Pileated Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpeckers get their name from their bright red crest going from their forehead to the back of their head, like a mohawk. They’re mostly black with white lines down the sides of their heads and necks. They have some white on their underwings that can only be seen in flight.
They’re one of the largest woodpeckers, measuring up to 19 inches long with a 30-inch wingspan and weighing up to 300 grams, with the females being slightly smaller. While they do have predators, including other birds, their size requires multiple attackers at once to take them down.
You’ll be able to hear this woodpecker before you see it. They have a high pitched scream and do loud jackhammering into trees looking for their favorite food – carpenter ants, and wood-boring beetle larvae.
You can find the Pileated Woodpecker year-round in Southern Illinois. It requires at least 100 acres of mature forest, and its favorite trees are Sycamores, Beeches, and Tulip Poplars. The most likely location to find them is Shawnee National Forest.
These Southern Illinois birds are not endangered and are seeing population growth of around 1.5% each year. However, they have specific habitat requirements, so they’re only found in some regions of Illinois.
4. Mississippi Kite
Mississippi Kites are small birds of prey, and it’s common to see several together circling an area on the hunt for prey. They can grow to be 15 inches long with a wingspan of 3 feet and can weigh up to 400 grams. They’re mostly grey and darker grey on their tail and outer wings.
Only about 50% of Mississippi Kites reach adulthood due to predators, but they have more success in urban areas when they build nests. However, due to their protected status, once they build a nest, you can’t move them or interfere with them, so depending on where their nest is, it could become a major nuisance to humans.
You’ll only find the Mississippi Kite during the breeding season, which is April through September. Your best chance to see one is by watching along the river bluffs and forests in Union County Conservation Area and the Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site.
The Mississippi Kite is not endangered, though it is a protected species. It is becoming rarer to see them in Illinois.