Garden of the Gods in Shawnee National Forest in Illinois. Photo by D. Schwen / Wikimedia

Introduction to Bird Watching in Illinois

When John James Audubon passed through Illinois in the early 1800s, he likely witnessed waterways teeming with ducks and skies filled with passenger pigeons. Back then, greater prairie-chickens gathered on grasslands in early spring throughout the state to woo females in a wild courtship dance. The ivory-billed woodpecker lived deep within southern Illinois swamplands, giving its toy-horn-like call and drumming on hollow trees.

Prairie potholes in central Illinois offered breeding habitat for sandhill cranes, even a few pairs of whooping cranes, as well as myriad ducks such as mallards and blue-winged teal.  Wild turkeys and ruffed grouse roamed in upland woods statewide; the turkeys gobbling and the grouse drumming on logs to attract mates. Carolina parakeets nested in hollow trees or cavities along waterways, flashing their brilliant green colors as they took to the sky.

Today, the passenger pigeon, ivory-billed woodpecker and Carolina parakeet are extinct—no longer to be found alive anywhere, but only as stuffed specimens in museums. Whooping cranes are federally endangered, and no longer breed in Illinois. The ruffed grouse is probably gone from the state as well, and numbers of shorebirds, ducks, songbirds, waterfowl and grassland birds have greatly diminished. The greater prairie-chicken hangs tenuously on to one grassland site in southern Illinois, and only about 20 pairs of sandhill cranes nest in Illinois, confined mostly to the northeastern part of the state.

Over-hunting, habitat destruction, unchecked development and the introduction of non-native species such as the European starling have led to the demise of many of the birds that once were part of Illinois’ native avifauna.

But Illinoisans and the early settlers before them have always enjoyed watching and studying birds—and where there is joy in beholding a wild creature, there is hope for its preservation. So Illinois’ story of bird-watching includes not only the loss of species and numbers, but also the great gains made in the 20th and 21st centuries to restore habitats for birds and, hence, for bird watchers too.

Bird watching in Illinois can be a thrilling, heady adventure filled with color and song. And you can enjoy it out in the field or from your own backyard. Year-round, black-capped and Carolina chickadees add spirit to the day, giving their dee-dee-dee calls as they snatch seeds from a feeder or build nests in a tree hole right in your backyard. Year-round, too, woodpeckers, nuthatches, cardinals, and blue jays will all come to your yard if you provide them with food, water, and shelter. And during spring and fall migration, Baltimore orioles will eat orange halves provided for them, while scarlet tanagers may enjoy the suet that you put out for the woodpeckers and nuthatches. Some birds readily nest in human-supplied bird boxes—these include the house wren, eastern bluebird, tree swallow, chickadees and others.

When you’re ready to leave your yard and visit some local forest preserves you can enjoy many more bird species, those that require larger tracts of land and certain types of habitat for breeding and feeding. Venture out to a woods anywhere on a spring day and you’ll be greeted with a riot of song and color. Perhaps you’ll hear and see the black-throated green warbler, which indeed has a black throat and a green back with lots of yellow on the belly, or the yellow-rumped warbler, which, indeed, has a yellow rump, along with yellow shoulders and a yellow crown patch.  Rose-breasted grosbeaks sing melancholy songs in the woods, while wood thrushes sound like Pan playing his flute. Walk the prairies in summer to listen for the rollicking calls of bobolinks and the buzzy insect-like trills of Savannah sparrows—or take a walk in winter through the snowy landscape to enjoy the birds such as dark-eyed juncos that come to Illinois for their winter vacation!

Any day, any season, you can experience Illinois birds in their habitat, showing their unique plumages and giving you a glimpse into another world.

It began, perhaps, with  Robert Ridgway, a well-known ornithologist in the 19th century.  In the late 1800s, Ridgway, who later became the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, wrote The Ornithology of Illinois. Because of Ridgway, we have data on the population, distribution and natural history of birds dating back more than a century. In the early 20th century, Steven A. Forbes of the Illinois Natural History Survey and other ornithologists visited various habitats statewide to get a systematic picture of the population and distribution of birds.  In the 1950s, Richard and Jean Graber repeated many of those studies to observe the changes in avian life in Illinois.

Everyday nature lovers have also been studying and enjoying birds for more than a century in Illinois. Incorporated in 1897, the Illinois Audubon Society has worked to promote the perpetuation and appreciation of native flora and fauna of Illinois and the habitats that support them. Over the years, this society has purchased hundreds of acres of land in the state to provide permanent habitats for birds and other animals and plants.

In 1992, the Illinois Ornithological Society, was founded, in part, to publish a quarterly journal that includes population, arrival, and departure data of bird species in Illinois for all four seasons. Many citizen or amateur scientists gather that data, which can be used to help land managers and ornithologists understand what is happening to the native species and how they can be preserved. The Bird Conservation Network, founded in 1998, consists of volunteers who do bird surveys at particular sites year after year to document trends in populations of certain key species.

Many state and federal agencies including the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also have worked to protect and restore the habitat birds need in Illinois. These agencies manage hundreds of parks and wildlife refuges for various recreation uses including hiking, fishing, hunting, boating, and bird watching.

Thanks to all of these scientists and organizations, as well as myriad bird clubs that have existed for years, a beginning birder can easily find interesting birds to watch in the state as well as someone willing to take them out to see and learn about Illinois’ avian creatures.

Because it is on a major flyway— the central flyway followed for millennia by migratory waterfowl, shorebirds, hawks and songbirds—Illinois is an exiting place for bird watching. Illinois spans 378 miles from the southern tip, where the habitat is reminiscent of a Louisiana bayou to the northern tip where you feel in winter like you are near the Arctic tundra. And that means many different habitats for many different bird species. In fact, more than 425 species of birds have been documented in the state.

Bordered on the east by Lake Michigan and on the west by major rivers and their associated river valleys, Illinois funnels migrants as they fly south for winter or north to breed. Each spring and fall, the migration begins. First, in spring, come the ducks, loons and hawks; then come the songbirds and shorebirds. In fall, the pattern is reversed, with ducks coming through last.

Ducks with ornate as well as those with dull plumage feed in deep or shallow waters, depending on whether they are equipped to dive deep or to dip their bills at the water’s surface. A shallow feeder, the wood duck is almost garish with its bright orange bill and green-crested head with red eye, white chin, and black cheek, while the blue-winged teal is more subtle, displaying powder-blue wing patches when it flies. Impressive numbers of waterfowl migrate along major river valleys, such as the Illinois where thousands of Canvasback and other diving ducks can often be found in spring and fall. Because of their appeal to hunters, ducks probably have had more protection than other species in Illinois. Many human-made reservoirs offer respite and food for ducks — and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manage public lands for the ducks. Some of these sites include Carlyle Lake, Clinton Lake, and Rend Lake.

Raptors offer impressive shows in Illinois as well. In September, hundreds to thousands of broad-winged hawks fly in groups upon the rising thermals from the heated ground — and a good place to watch them is at Illinois Beach State Park in Zion. Birders started a hawkwatch there in 1999 and are learning that merlins and peregrine falcons use the Lake Michigan shoreline in northern Illinois for migration much more than was previously thought.  Beginning birders can sit on their lawn chairs and listen to the experts point out the various characteristics of the raptors in the sky. The Illinois Ornithological Society is also organizing a winter raptor survey to learn more about the habits of these birds of prey.

Raptors are beguiling, but sometimes difficult for birders to identify when the birds are migrating through as pinpoints in the sky. Perhaps that’s why the songbirds offer such an attraction. In one season, Illinois birders see at least 36 different species of warblers — from the gorgeous, black-and-orange hued Blackburnian warbler to the common black-throated green that sings, “zoo,zee, zoo,zoo, zee” from atop trees to the fairly ubiquitous palm warbler that often hops about the ground, constantly  pumping its tail. These and other songbirds such as thrushes, tanagers and orioles migrate along the Des Plaines River Valley and along the Lake Michigan shoreline in northern Illinois and along the Cache River and its valleys in southern Illinois. Central Illinois, mostly soybean and cornfields, has protected river valleys and woodlands where hungry migrants stop to refuel. Recent Doppler radar studies are showing every piece of vegetation in the state is important to migratory birds—and how large swaths of songbirds fly over Lake Michigan at night during migration. These birds face many perils, including tall lighted buildings that mesmerize them and bring them to their doom. Throughout the migration season, volunteers gather birds that have hit these buildings and take them to rehabilitation centers. In addition, volunteers are educating the public about these hazards, and many building owners have agreed to turn of the lights at night during migration.

Shorebirds, though more difficult to identify than some of the woodland songbirds, offer the chance to explore different habitats. In mudflats, sodfarms, and wetland edges, birders search for the more than 40 species of shorebirds in Illinois. These include the lesser yellowlegs with its long legs and tu tu call and the killdeer that calls its name in flight and feigns a broken wing when intruders get too close to its nest. Lake Chautauqua in southern Illinois is acclaimed as an important international shorebird reserve. Shorebirds, some of which fly from one end of the earth to the other each year, to breed and winter, require many stopover sites for resting and refueling—birders and scientists are documenting shorebird numbers and species to get a better picture of the habitat required. They have learned that Illinois harbors a significant percentage of the world’s population of a shorebird species on migration Indeed, 100,000 greater yellowlegs and 500,000 lesser yellowlegs migrate through Illinois each season; those numbers represent more than 10 and 20 percent (respectively) of the world’s population of these species. Federal and state wildlife managers are taking note as they plan management programs, but conservation efforts for shorebirds in Illinois have only just begun.

Grassland and wetland birds need help, too. Since settlement, Illinois, the prairie state, has lost nearly all of its grassland and wetland habitats — indeed less than one percent of the historical acreage of these native ecosystems remains today. Researchers, volunteers and land managers are working to protect those remaining acres as well as restore them and purchase land to expand the acreage. These folks are restoring such areas as the Bartel and Orland Grasslands south of Chicago where bobolinks and Henslow’s sparrows breed. Scientists are working at the Prairie Ridge State Natural Area to protect the last-remaining population of greater prairie-chickens viable, and the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, the former Joliet Arsenal, is now serving as a model for managing a large site to attract suites of grassland and shrubland birds. State and federal organizations are managing more than 19,000 acres of this mosaic of wetlands, shrubs and various types of grasslands to provide places for breeding upland sandpiper, loggerhead shrike, bobolink, Henslow’s sparrow and other rare breeders in the state. Large, contiguous sites provide a better place for birds to successfully raise young and that isolated  islands present problems to these birds — whether they be woodlands, wetland or grasslands.

Providing habitat for wetland birds is another 21st century conservation priority in Illinois. Wetlands have been drained for more than a century; and those that remain are becoming degraded as non-native species encroach and the water is interrupted from its natural flow. Some of the state’s best wetlands where you can see birds dependent on these habitats between land and water include the Cache River Wetlands in southern Illinois and a series of wetlands in northeastern Illinois where the state-endangered yellow-headed blackbird breeds as well as more common species including pied-billed grebe and sora.

Lucky for birders, many state and local bird clubs organize trips, most of them free and open to the public, to see ducks, warblers, shorebirds, wading species, grassland birds and raptors. Leaders go into the wetlands at dusk and play tapes to coax rails and grebes to respond with their interesting vocalizations or they plan a trip to help people observe greater prairie-chickens perform their fascinating courtship display. They lead local trips to migratory hotspots, helping birders find their favorite warblers. Veteran bird watchers abound at these trips, eager to help beginners with identification tips.

New bird watchers can also join one of the many statewide clubs conducting Christmas Bird Counts and the Spring Bird Counts. Wherever you live, in Illinois you can find a Christmas Bird Count sometime between mid-December and early January where you can help count chickadees, jays, cardinals, nuthatches, geese, and other common year-round species. It’s a perfect opportunity to learn about Illinois birds, because the number of species in winter is so much smaller than in summer or during migration. That gives you a chance to focus in on identifying just a few species. The Spring Bird Count occurs at the height of songbird migration and it’s a thrill to go out and count all the warblers, thrushes, and Baltimore orioles descending into the greenery.

Never before in Illinois’ history have there been more bird watchers willing to help beginners or more conservationists working to help birds. Seek out a local resource and start watching and enjoying birds in Illinois.

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