The Backyard Birds of Will County

You've probably seen many of these feathered friends, but how much do you know about them?

|  STORY BY MEGHAN MCMAHON |

Most of us can tell a robin from a blue jay, but do you know the difference between a house finch and a house sparrow? Not all of the birds that populate our yards, parks and forests are easily recognizable. Learn more about some of the more common birds in Will County as well as what they look like, what they eat and where they nest.  

American goldfinch

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Goldfinches live across much of the eastern United States, including northern Illinois, year-round, but they are less noticeable when not in breeding season because their plumage is more non-descript. These birds love thistle seed, and you can attract them to your yard by planting native thistles, milkweeds and composite plants. They’ll also eat thistle and sunflower seeds from feeders.

Only the male goldfinches sport the trademark bright yellow, with stark black foreheads and wings, and even then only in the breeding season in spring and early summer. Female goldfinches are yellow in breeding season, but a more pale and subdued shade than their male counterparts and with more olive green or brownish shades on their backs. Non-breeding males and females are a more drab, olive green or grayish green color. They have darker wings with two pale wing bars.

 

Male and female goldfinches choose a nesting site together, often in a shrub or sapling. The females build the nests from plant fibers, weaving them together so tightly they can hold water. They’ll lay one to two broods of two to seven eggs each breeding season. The eggs are a pale shade of blue, sometimes with brown speckles around the wide end.  

American robin

(Photo by Chris Cheng)

The robin is perhaps the quintessential backyard bird, often thought of as a harbinger of spring. Robins live in Will County year-round, but we don’t often see them in winter, when they typically roost in trees in wooded areas. Come spring, though, they’ll be in our yards and gardens in search of earthworms, one of their preferred foods. Worms are just a small part of their diet though. They also eat insects and fruits. They’ll even visit bird feeders for seed.

Male and female robins are similar in appearance, both featuring the trademark orange breast. Male robins, however, are typically more brightly colored, while females have more muted colors.  

Robins usually nest in trees and shrubs, with the females building the nests from twigs and grass and then lining them with mud. The females can have two or even sometimes three broods a year, with three to five eggs in each clutch. The color of the eggs is well-known, having given rise to the color we know as robin’s egg blue.  

American tree sparrow

(Photo courtesy of Barb Parisi)

American tree sparrows are exclusively winter birds here in Will County. They have a varied, seasonal diet that includes seeds, grains, fruits and insects. While here in the winter, they eat seeds and other grains. They’ll visit bird feeders for food, but also feasts in open, grassy areas.   

The male and female American tree sparrows are similar in appearance, with rusty-colored caps and a rust-colored eyeline on an otherwise gray head. Their backs have a brown streaked appearance. Their bills are two-toned, black on top and gold or yellow on the bottom.

These sparrows migrate north to Canada and Alaska for breeding, building nests from grasses, mosses, bark and twigs on the ground. They lay between four and six eggs with each brood. The eggs are light blue in color, covered in reddish speckles. 

Black-capped chickadee

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Many people think of black-capped chickadees as winter birds, but they live in Will County year-round. Our area is at the southern end of their range, which extends north into Canada and even Alaska. These birds are often seen at bird feeders, particularly in the winter, when they feast on sunflower seeds, suet and peanuts. At other times of the year, they primarily eat insects. 

True to their name, male and female black-capped chickadees both sport black caps and also black bibs. They have white cheeks, their backs and wings are gray and they have creamy white underbellies. 

Black-capped chickadees nest in cavities in trees and other natural structures as well as nesting boxes. Males and females work together to excavate the cavity, and the females build cup-shaped nests inside with moss and other coarse natural materials that they then line with fur and other soft materials.  They have one brood per season with anywhere from one to 13 eggs. Their eggs are white with small reddish-brown dots. 

Blue jay

(Photo courtesy of Paul Dacko)

Blue jays are among the most recognizable birds in their native range, which includes most of the eastern two-thirds of the United States and parts of southern Canada. If you have oak trees in your yard, you may see them feasting on acorns, which is among their favorite foods. They also eat other seeds, fruits, nuts, grains and even sometimes other animals, including eggs and nestlings from other birds. At bird feeders, they are partial to peanuts, sunflower seeds and suet. 

Male and female blue jays are virtually identical. They are blue from above and white from below, and their wings and tail feathers have some black and white barring. They have a black ring around their necks, and they have white faces topped with a bright blue crest.

 

The male and female blue jays build their nests together, with the males doing most of the gathering of materials and the females doing most of the nest construction. They typically build nests in deciduous or coniferous trees, using twigs and grasses and lining them with small roots. Their eggs are blue or light brown in color, and they typically have one brood of between two and seven eggs each breeding season. 

Brown-headed cowbird

(Photo by Chris Cheng)

Brown-headed cowbirds live in our area year-round, visiting bird feeders in all seasons to feed on seeds. They also eat grain seeds and some insects. They flock with other blackbirds and can be often be seen in grasslands and other grassy areas eating grain and seed. 

Male brown-headed cowbirds are a glossy black color except for their namesake brown heads. The females are an unassuming brown color with some lighter streaking on their bellies. 

Cowbirds don’t build their own nests. Instead, the females lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, hoping to pass them off as part of the other birds’ clutches. They can lay up to three dozen eggs each summer, hiding them among birds from more than 100 different species. Some of the most common host nests include those of the red-winged blackbird, song sparrow, chipping sparrow and yellow warbler. Because of this behavior, not all cowbird hatchlings survive.

Dark-eyed junco

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Juncos are often called snow birds because they arrive in the United States in droves each fall from their breeding grounds in Canada and then leave again once spring starts to creep in. Dark-eyed juncos are mostly seed eaters, foraging for food on the ground. They also visit bird feeders for seed.

Dark-eyed juncos vary in appearance regionally across the United States. The juncos we have here in northern Illinois are mostly a slate gray color with white tail feathers and underbellies. They have pale pinkish or peach-colored bills.

Juncos breed across much of Canada, where they construct nests on the ground, often among tree roots or sometimes under buildings. They can have one to three broods of three to six eggs each year. Their eggs are white or a very pale gray, green or blue, usually covered with brown, green and gray speckles.

 

Downy woodpecker

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Downy woodpeckers are the smallest of the woodpeckers that live in North America, barely bigger than a sparrow. They live across most of the United States, a common sight in residential areas, city parks and wooded lots. Downies are often seen in mixed flocks with nuthatches and chickadees. Downy woodpeckers are the woodpeckers most likely to be seen at a bird feeder, where they prefer suet but also eat sunflower seeds, peanuts and millet. Elsewhere, they also eat insects and other seeds.

Downies look very similar to hairy woodpeckers, but they are smaller. They have a black-and-white checkered appearance, with white stripes on their heads and backs. Only the males have the trademark small red patch on their heads. 

 

Like most woodpeckers, downies excavate holes for nesting. Both males and females do the excavating, which is usually in a dead tree or a dead part of a living tree. They line the hole with wood chips to build the nest. They have one brood each year, with three to eight eggs, which are completely white in color. 

House sparrow

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

These sparrows aren’t native to the United States, but they have become well established across most of the country. They’re thought of as urban and suburban birds, a common sight anywhere that’s populated by houses or other buildings, as their name implies.

Male house sparrows are brightly colored, with white cheeks, gray caps, black bibs and wings and backs striped with black, brown and buff-colored feathers. The females are more plain and conspicuous looking, with a buff or brown head and belly, wings and backs with less vibrant black, brown and buff feathers. House sparrows are ground foragers, eating all manner of grains, seeds and, in the summer, insects. They are frequent visitors to bird feeders, where they eat millet, sunflower seeds and corn. 

 

House sparrows build nests in cavities in buildings and other structures. They also compete with other birds for nesting boxes, so much so that some people consider them nuisance birds because they sometimes displace native birds from nesting boxes.

House finch

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

These finches aren’t native to the eastern United States, but they were introduced from the western part of the country and Hawaii. They’ve become well-established throughout their new territory, a colorful addition to our yards and parks. At bird feeders, they prefer black oil sunflower seed. Away from feeders, they eat all manner of plant materials, including buds, seeds and a wide variety of fruits.

Male house finches have a warm red breast, and their underbellies, backs and tails are streaked brown. Females have no red plumage, but instead are covered in brown or brownish gray feathers with blurred streaks on their bellies. 

House finches nest in trees and, less often, buildings, taking over nests abandoned by other birds. They can have as many as six broods each year, but may only have one. Each brood can have between two and six eggs, and the eggs are usually a pale shade of blue or white, and are covered in tiny black or purple speckles. 

Mourning dove

(Photo by Chad Merda)

Mourning doves, named for their sad, somber calls that sound like mourning, can be found across nearly all of the United States year-round. They are often seen perched on utility wires and poles, but they forage for food on the ground. They eat seeds almost exclusively, but will also occasionally eat snails and berries. If you keep bird feeders stocked, you may see mourning doves foraging on the ground around the feeders for spilled seed. 

A mourning dove’s plumage can vary based on its habitat, with their wings and backs ranging from shades of gray or brown to more buff-colored, and their wings have black spots. From underneath, their plumage is lighter, with a buff or peach appearance.

These doves typically nest in dense foliage, but they are not bothered by humans and also sometimes nest in gutters, eaves or planters. They construct loose nests from twigs, pine needles and grasses. They have two eggs per clutch, but can have anywhere form one to six broods each year. The eggs are an unremarkable white color. 

Northern cardinal

(Photo by Chris Cheng)

Cardinals are among the most recognizable birds in their native range, which includes most of the eastern two-thirds of the United States. The males sport their famous red plumage, while the females are tan-colored with flashes of red on their tails, wings and crests. Both males and females have mohawk-like crests. 

These birds eat mainly fruit and seed, including popular feeder foods like black oil sunflower seeds. In the warmer months, they supplement their diet with a wide variety of insects. 

Male and female cardinals work together to build a nest, usually in a shrub. The males find and collect nest materials, and the females do most of the work to construct the nest. They will have one or two broods each season, usually with between two and five eggs each. Their eggs vary in color from grayish white to buff-colored to light green, and they usually have gray or brown speckles.

Purple finch

(Photo courtesy of Debi Shapiro)

Purple finches have beaks built for cracking and crushing seeds, and black oil sunflower seeds are among their favorites. They also eat other plant seeds as well as fruits and some insects. Here in Will County, they are a more common site in winter, when they often visit bird feeders in search of sunflower seeds. Their time here each year is fleeting, because they breed in the northern United States and Canada. 

These finches aren’t really purple. The males are more raspberry red in color, but only on their heads and backs. On their bellies, they are creamy white or pinkish extending from the neck. And the females aren’t red at all. They instead have brown-and-white streaked plumage with a white eye stripe and a dark stripe on the throat area.

Female purple finches are the primary nest builders, and they usually construct their nests in deciduous or coniferous trees, but also sometimes in shrubs and vines. Nests are made from sticks, twigs and roots and then lined with animal hair or grasses. Purple finches can have one or two broods per year, with each brood consisting of between two and seven eggs. The eggs are pale green and speckled.

Red-bellied woodpecker

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

If you see a flash of red in the forest, it may just be a red-bellied woodpecker. These woodpeckers prefer woodlands to our yards and parks, but if you live near a wooded area you may see them at your bird feeders eating suet, peanuts and maybe even sunflower seeds. 

Despite the name, red-bellied woodpeckers are more easily noticed for their red heads than their red bellies. Male red-bellied woodpeckers have bright red crowns and napes on the backs of their necks. Females don’t have red crowns, but do flash bright red on their napes. They have black-and-white striped backs and pale breasts and bellies. 

 

To make nests, these woodpeckers excavate holes in dead trees or dead limbs of living trees. They will sometimes use the same cavity for subsequent years, but more often build a new hole just beneath the hole from the previous year. Red-bellied woodpeckers can have up to three broods per year, laying eggs on the wood chips and shavings from their excavation work. Each brood can have two to six smooth, white eggs.

Tufted titmouse

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

These little birds can be found year-round in our area and across much of the eastern United States. In the winter, they become regular visitors at backyard bird feeders, preferring to feed on sunflower seeds, but also suet, peanuts and other seeds. In the summer, tufted titmice mostly eat insects, but also fruits.

Male and female tufted titmice have similar plumage: a silvery gray color above and a creamy white below. They have big heads and eyes with full necks, and they have short, stout bills and a head capped with a pointy crest.

 

Tufted titmice nest in cavities, but because they can’t excavate their own holes they take over old woodpecker holes or find natural holes in trees. Their nests themselves are cup shaped, made from leaves, grass, moss and bark, and then lined with soft natural materials like fur, hair and wool. Titmice have just one brood each nesting season, with between three and nine eggs. The eggs are white or cream-colored and have brown, reddish-brown, purple or lilac-colored spots.

White-breasted nuthatch

(Photo by Chris Cheng)

These nuthatches are built for eating seeds. In fact, the word "nuthatch" in their name references their practice of jamming acorns and other nuts into tree bark and whacking at them with their bills to “hatch” the seed from its outer shell. White-breasted nuthatches are also common feeder birds, congregating to feast on sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet. In warmer times of year, they primarily eat insects.

White-breasted nuthatches are grayish-blue on the top with a white breast, as their common name implies. Males and females are similar in appearance, and both often have chestnut-colored patches on their tails and lower bellies. They look like they are wearing hoods because they have white faces with gray or black caps. 

These birds nest in cavities, but they don’t usually build their own holes. Instead, they look for natural holes in trees or take over an old woodpecker cavity. The females work to build the nest in the cavity, using fur, bark and dirt and then lining it with feathers and other soft materials. They will sometimes use the same nest over multiple years, raising one brood with anywhere from five to nine eggs. The eggs can be creamy white or pinkish white and often have gray, brownish or purplish speckles.

White-throated sparrow

(Photo via Shutterstock)

In our area, white-throated sparrows are winter birds, often seen in large flocks in our yards and foresting before migrating north as winter gives way to spring. In our yards, you’ll often see them under the feeder instead of on it, feeding on all the fallen food. They also eat seeds from a variety of grasses and weeds, as well as plant buds in the spring and insectsin the summer.

These sparrows have brown backs, tails and wings, grayish-colored breasts and underbellies and, of course, a white throat patch. They have black and white stripes on their heads and a small patch of yellow between their eyes and their bills. 

The breeding grounds for the white-throated sparrow include most of Canada as well as the far northernmost regions of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. They build their nests on the ground, usually in a clearing surrounded by vegetation. They have one or two broods of up to six eggs each year. The eggs are a pale shade of blue or green covered with speckles.

(Lead image of a blue jay via Shutterstock)

____________

Stay up-to-date on the happenings in Will County's forest preserves by subscribing to The Citizen, our weekly digital newsletter that provides subscribers with updates on Forest Preserve news, upcoming events, and other fun and useful information for the whole family. If you're only interested in programs, subscribe to The Weekly Five, which outlines the five must-do programs each week. Signing up for either newsletter is easy and free of charge.