Saturday, February 18, 2023

Birds at Your Feeder in Illinois (+Videos!)

What birds come to feeders in Illinois?

This article and accompanying videos discuss the most common birds at bird feeders in Illinois throughout the year. Other feeder birds may be more common seasonally, but these should be present most of the year.

I start with a quick list of Illinois feeder birds and then provide more information if you are so interested.

Feeding birds in Illinois can bring much joy!

Here are 10 birds that you are most likely to see at your bird feeder in Illinois:

  • Northern Cardinal
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • American Goldfinch
  • Mourning Dove
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • House Sparrow
  • European Starling
  • Blue Jay
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker

Photo of Northern Cardinal
Northern Cardinal. Greg Gillson.

Two videos showing feeder birds of Illinois

I have created two videos on feeder birds in Illinois. 

The first video is a brief overview of the Top 10 Birds that come to feeders in Illinois.

The second video is more in-depth, covering the same species in more detail.

Here's the first brief video:

Just a quick couple of sentences and some photos. This video will give you the names of birds that are visiting your feeder in Illinois.

Top 10 Feeder Birds of Illinois [Brief] (2:22)

Here's the longer, in-depth video:

It includes videos and photos along with information on range, habitat, behavior, identification, and what they like to eat at feeders. This longer video gives an in-depth look at the birds visiting your feeder in Illinois. The text for this video is reproduced below.

10 Most Common Feeder Birds of Illinois [In-Depth] (17:05)

Northern Cardinal

(Featured image above)

Northern Cardinals are one of the most popular birds in the United States. Even people who haven't seen one in life have seen their image on logos and advertisements.

These birds are year-round residents from the northeastern United States south to Florida, west to the Midwest, southern Great Plains to Arizona.

They are found in woodlands, hedgerows, and dense backyard shrubs.

Both males and females sing, a series of repeated whistles.

These birds are less bulky than European Starlings, but just as long. The have a very long tail and big head with tall crest.

The bill is very thick at the base, short, with curved edges. It is usually obviously orange.

Males are bright red throughout, with hints of blue on the wings, tail, and back. They have a black throat patch that reaches to the eye and over the bill.

Females are dull brown or buffy yellow in coloration with red highlights on the edges of the wings and tail. Their crest isn't quite as pronounced as the males. They still show the black around the bill.

Northern Cardinals eat larger seeds at your feeder, including black oil sunflower seeds and safflower seeds.

Red-winged Blackbird

Photo of Red-winged Blackbird
Red-winged Blackbird. Greg Gillson

Red-winged Blackbirds are common birds across North America. 

In summer they are found from Alaska, across Canada, south into Mexico. In winter they abandon much of Canada and the northern Great Plains and Midwest. 

They nest in marshes in summer, where there are cattails and similar plants. In winter they spread out into fields, cattle lots, and residential neighborhoods. These birds are colonial nesters in cattail marshes. 

In fall and winter, they form very large flocks composed of many young-of-the-year, starlings, grackles, cowbirds, and other blackbirds. Such flocks can number in the hundreds of thousands, especially in the East. 

These birds are about the size of American Robins, perhaps a bit smaller. They are stocky with a fairly long tail. They have rather flat foreheads that accentuate the long bill. The bill is fairly stout at the base, long, pointed, and straight on the upper and lower edges. 

Males are glossy black with yellow-edged red shoulders that can be hidden in the scapular feathers when the wings are at rest. 

Females are a bit smaller than males. They are pale with heavy brown streaks on the under parts. Some populations show buff on the face. They may confuse beginners into thinking they are some kind of streaky sparrow. The flat crown and very straight and sharply pointed bill point to their identification as blackbirds. 

 At your feeder they will eat black oil sunflower seeds and suet.

American Goldfinch

Photo of American Goldfinch
American Goldfinch. Greg Gillson

The American Goldfinches are favorite backyard birds across North America. Many people call them “wild canaries.” 

These active birds are year-round residents coast-to-coast across northern and mid-latitudes of the United States. 

In summer birds move into southern Canada. In winter birds are found throughout the United States.

They are found in weedy pastures and brushy clearings. In town, they favor parks and residential areas with lawns and scattered trees. They often feed on thistles or dandelion seeds on the ground. But they also fly over open spaces between trees with a bounding roller-coaster flight and a lilting “potato chip” call. 

These are small birds, smaller than House Finches. They are rather plump birds with small round heads and short tails. The bill is small but it is conical for eating seeds. It is colored pink. 

Summer males are striking with their brilliant yellow and black plumage. The body is yellow and they have a black crown. The wings and tail feathers are black and white. 

Females are duller olive-green without the black crown. They have thin white wing bars. 

Juvenile birds in fall show striking tan wing bars on the black wing. 

In winter both genders are pale gray and tan with brown wings and tail. They may only show a hint of yellow on the head and throat. 

At your feeder, American Goldfinches love black oil sunflower seeds and Niger seed. They are especially common at feeders in summer and fall.

Mourning Dove

Photo of Mourning Dove
Mourning Dove. Greg Gillson

The mournful summer song of Mourning Doves is familiar to most, even if they don't know what bird makes the sound. 

They are found across the United States as year-round residents. Birds summer in the northern Great Plains and south central Canada, but withdraw in winter. 

These birds are found in towns and farms, and open country with scattered trees, often along rivers. 

In spring they sing from power lines in residential areas. They may puff out their chests while cooing from the peak of your roof. 

These birds are much larger than European Starlings, but also much smaller than American Crows. These birds have large powerful breasts, a tiny round head on thin neck, and long pointed tail. Their wings are somewhat pointed in flight. The bill is small as typical for all pigeons. Genders are identical. 

These birds are warm tan or brown colored. The breast has a pinkish hue. The wings are gray. They have a few large black spots on the wing coverts. They have a black spot on the side of the neck below the cheek that sometimes shows some iridescent green feathers. The tail has white edges, best seen in flight. 

At your bird feeder Mourning Doves eat all types of seeds. They are also attracted to water for drinking and bathing.

Downy Woodpecker

Photo of Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker. Greg Gillson

Downy Woodpeckers are tiny and common visitors to backyards across the United States. 

These woodpeckers inhabit nearly all of North America south of the tundra and away from the driest deserts. 

Often found near water, they like small deciduous trees, willows, and brush. Common in backyards. 

Like other woodpeckers, these birds hitch up small trees. However, they often cling to the small outer branches. They even hang on twigs and small bushes such as wild rose and teasel. 

They are bigger than House Finches, smaller than Red-winged Blackbirds, but shaped differently than either. These birds have stocky bodies and big heads. They have short, stiff, pointed tails. The legs are short. The feet are large with strong claws. The bills of these woodpeckers are chisel shaped but especially short and petite. 

The overall pattern of these birds is black-and-white stripes. The wings are black with numerous white spots and bars. The back is white. The underparts are white or tinged with buff. The face is white; the crown and nape is black, the ear covert black, and there is a black malar stripe. The tail is black with white outer tail feathers. Males have a red spot on the nape that females lack. 

Downy Woodpeckers eat suet at your feeder.

House Sparrow

Photo of House Sparrow
House Sparrow. Greg Gillson

House Sparrows were first introduced into the United States in 1851 and quickly became common coast-to-coast. 

These birds are year-round residents from Canada south through Mexico. They originally were birds of Europe and Asia, but have colonized basically every human-occupied city in the world. 

Towns and cities are the primary habitats of these birds. Wherever there are permanent human settlements, these birds are there. They choose to nest in houses, buildings, and other human-made structures, but also in nest boxes provided for other birds. They also thrive in farms and ranches, especially stables and grain storehouses. 

These are social birds, often found in large flocks. They tend to squabble and have a complex hierarchy. Males are dominant in fall and winter, but females dominate in spring and summer. They also tend to be aggressive toward other birds at the feeder. 

These sparrows are not related to New World Sparrows. Thus they are differently shaped. They have a short body and full breast, large head, and short tail. The bill is triangular: short pointed but thick at the base. The bill of female and fall males is dull yellowish. The bill of spring males is black. 

In fresh fall plumage males are dingy brown above, with dark stripes on the back, dusty brown on wings and tail, with a gray rump. They have one large white upper wing bar. They have a bit of black on the chin. As their pale feather tips wear off during winter and spring, the black bib on the male reveals itself. The crown becomes grayer, the face whiter, and chestnut patches on the nape and shoulder become more obvious. 

Females remain in a dull plumage all year. The under parts are dingy gray. Upper parts dull brown with dark lines on the back. They also show a small white upper wing bar. The face shows a brown crown and stripe behind the eye, offset by a wide buffy eyebrow. 

At the feeder House Sparrows eat a wide variety of seeds, but they like cracked corn and red milo (ingredients found in cheaper bird seed) that many native sparrows and finches do not like. They also have rather weak feet. So to reduce the number of House Sparrows at your feeder, switch to black oil sunflower seeds in a tube feeder.

European Starling

Photo of European Starling
European Starling. Greg Gillson

Starlings are often mistaken for blackbirds, but they are in a different bird family and don't share a lot of similarities, other than a general black coloration. 

These birds are year-round residents from southeast Alaska across southern Canada and all of the lower 48 states into northern Mexico. In addition, birds move northward into northern Canada in summer. 

They are found in urban, suburban, fields, and orchards. In autumn and winter they gather into huge flocks, often with blackbirds. They are frequently aggressive at feeders, driving off other birds. 

These birds have the body size of an American Robin, but a much shorter tail. They are about 8-1/2 inches long from bill tip to tail tip. They have plump bodies, rather large heads, and short tails. Wings are short and pointed in flight, almost triangular. Their bills are long and pointed. 

Dark brown worn birds in late summer get fresh new feathers in fall. Then their iridescent black feathers are tipped with white chevrons. These gradually wear off during the winter and spring. By summer they are mostly black, without many spangles. 

Breeding birds have yellow bills, the bills are brown in the non-breeding season. Both genders are colored the same. 

Because of their aggressive nature, most people do not like starlings at their bird feeders. Starlings have weak feet, so have trouble eating from tube feeders and special upside-down suet feeders.

Blue Jay

Photo of Blue Jay
Blue Jay. skeeze Pixabay

Blue Jays are one of the most well-known birds in the United States. 

Birds are found year-round east of the Rocky Mountains from southern Canada to Texas and eastward. There is a noticeable migration of some of their population in most of their range. Birds move northward into the Great Plains of Canada for the summer. 

Though they are found in woodlands of all type, they are especially attracted to oak trees. They are common in residential areas, too. 

Brash and conspicuous, Blue Jays have a complex social structure. The more the crest is raised, the more excited or agitated the bird is. 

Jays are fairly large backyard birds. They are just a bit larger than American Robins. These are stout birds with large rounded or wedge-shaped tails. They have large legs and feet. They have a bushy crest. The bill is fairly long, strong. 

Genders are similar in plumage. They are blue above, including the crest. They are gray below with a black necklace across the throat. The wings are barred with black, with white wing bars and trailing edges. The blue tail is barred with black and has white tail corners. 

At your feeder, Blue Jays love whole peanuts and sunflower seeds.

Black-capped Chickadee

Photo of Black-capped Chickadee
Black-capped Chickadee. Greg Gillson

The cute Black-capped Chickadees must be one of the favorite birds at feeders across much of North America. 

They are year-round residents in Alaska and across Canada south across the northern half of the United States. 

These birds are found in deciduous and mixed woods, orchards, and backyards. They feed in small flocks acrobatically on the end of twigs, searching for invertebrates and small seeds. 

In winter they make up the core of roaming mix feeding flocks. These flocks include chickadees, kinglets, nuthatches, and often include Brown Creepers, Downy Woodpeckers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and wrens. 

These are small birds, smaller than House Finches. They are about the same length as American Goldfinches. The bodies of chickadees are round and plump. They have big heads and long tails that flit about. They have long legs and big feet. The bills are short and stout. This allows them to eat both seeds and invertebrate foods. 

These birds are gray above and buffy below. They have striking black caps and bibs, offset by their white face. You may also notice the white secondary wing edges of the folded wing. Genders are identical in appearance. 

 At your feeder, Black-capped Chickadees love black oil sunflower seeds. They take these one-at-a-time to a nearby branch. They hold the seed with their feet and pound the shell open with their bill to get the kernel inside. In fall they often take the whole seed away and store it for the winter, in what is called a cache.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Photo of Red-bellied Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker. skeeze. Pixabay

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are one of the common woodland birds in the East. 

These birds are year-round residents from the Northeast to the Midwest, and south from Florida to eastern Texas. 

They aren't too picky in their choice of trees. They are found in deciduous and conifer forests. They may be found in parks and neighborhoods with mature trees. Learn and listen for the loud rolling churr call of these woodpeckers. You may find they are more common than you first thought. 

These birds are a bit larger than European Starlings. They a stocky with large head and short wedge-shaped tail. The bill is long, straight. and chisel shaped. 

The upper parts, including the back and wings are covered with thin black-and-white bars. The head and under parts are pale tan or gray. They have white rumps and black tails with barred outer tail feathers. 

Males have red crowns from their bill to their back. Some also show a reddish wash to their belly. 

Females have red crowns from the top of their head back, with gray fore-crowns. 

 At feeders, Red-bellied Woodpeckers love suet, and also eat peanuts.

Recommended Products for feeding birds in Illinois

Amazon Affiliate Links

If you are looking for feeders and bird food, here are products I use or recommend. If you purchase from these links, I earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

This hopper feeder is just the right size and durable. The best high quality mixed bird seed for this bird feeder that I highly recommend is Wagner's Songbird Supreme. This combination attracts the widest variety of feeder birds.

I really like how this iBorn copper tube feeder looks in my yard. It is best for finches and chickadees when filled with black oil sunflower seed.

For attracting woodpeckers and chickadees, and keeping out jays, starlings, and grackles, I love my Nature's Way Upside-Down Suet Feeder. I also buy St. Albans Bay suet.

For common backyard birds and birds at your feeder, this is a good little book.

I'm using these Celestron Nature DX ED 8x40s almost exclusively now. I am impressed that such a low-priced binocular has such good image quality. Perfect for beginners! Yes, there are better binoculars at $500, $1000, $2000. But why? They're not that much better.

Links to other articles on this blog

Backyard Birds of Illinois

Feeding winter birds in Illinois

Red, Orange & Yellow Birds of Illinois

Setting up your bird feeder

Monday, February 6, 2023

Nuthatches: The upside-down bird!

That active little bird that lands on your feeder to eat upside-down is a nuthatch!

Almost any kind of bird may hang upside-down at your feeder for a little while. But the bird that is famous for its upside-down lifestyle is the nuthatch.

Actually, there is not just one nuthatch. There are several kinds of nuthatches. We'll discuss the 4 North American nuthatches below.

We'll discuss why nuthatches hang upside-down.

And we'll also discuss how to attract nuthatches to your feeder.

But first...

What do nuthatches look like?

Photo of Red-breasted Nuthatch hanging upside-down
A nuthatch hangs upside-down from the porch roof.

Nuthatches are quite small birds about the size of a chickadee--4 to 5-1/2 inches long, bill tip to tail tip.

But nuthatches are different than chickadees. Nuthatches have long pointed bills; chickadees have short stout bills. Nuthatches have very short tails; chickadees have very long tails.

The feet of nuthatches are large and strong with long claws to grip the bark of trees. 

Most nuthatches around the world are blue-gray above. Many have white breasts. Others have rusty breasts and a white eyestripe.

But why do nuthatches hang upside-down to eat?

First of all, nuthatches don't always eat upside-down. They can eat in any position. And they do!

Nuthatches don't weigh very much. With their strong feet, they can easily hang onto tree bark (or your feeder) in any position.

Other birds might look for food on leaves and twigs. But not the nuthatches. They crawl over and around, up and down the trunk and heavier branches. They look for food on the bark. 

By concentrating on the bark, the nuthatches find different foods than the birds that are feeding out on the foliage. And by traveling down the tree head-first, they may see insects and invertebrates that other "right-side up" birds miss.

They are so used to eating upside down, that they often feed upside-down even when they really don't have to!

We'll talk more about what foods nuthatches eat, and how to attract them, below. But first, let's look at the different kinds of nuthatches.

Where do upside-down birds live?

Where can you find nuthatches?

Well, nuthatches live in forests and woods of many kinds. Different kinds of nuthatches are found in different kinds of trees and forests. Look below to the individual accounts of each species.

General Nuthatch Facts:

Nuthatches are found in the northern hemisphere around the world. 

There are 29 recognized species of nuthatches in the world.

The highest variety of nuthatch species is found in Southeast Asia.

How to find nuthatches: Mixed Feeding Flocks:

Within the woods, you can often find nuthatches by looking for mixed feeding flocks. These are flocks composed of several species that feed together. 

The core of these mixed flocks is often chickadees and titmice. They are joined by nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, brown creepers, kinglets, and often other small birds like warblers and vireos.

The advantage of a mixed feeding flock is that there is safety in numbers. More birds can look out for danger, such as a Cooper's or Sharp-shinned hawk.

The disadvantage of mixed feeding flocks is that you have to compete for food with the whole flock! Now the upside-down eating habits of the nuthatches give them an advantage. Other birds in the mixed flock looking on the bark for food are the Downy Woodpecker and Brown Creeper. But they can only go up the tree headfirst!

Kinds of upside-down birds in North America

There are 4 species of nuthatches north of Mexico. Depending upon where you live, there may be 1 to 3 different kinds of nuthatches in your yard and at your feeder!

Well, if you live in the desert or Great Plains, you won't have nuthatches regularly. But in some years you may have Red-breasted Nuthatches visit in winter.

White-breasted Nuthatch

Photo of White-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch. Greg Gillson.

White-breasted Nuthatches live in deciduous woods, usually with oak trees. In the West they occur in pine-oak and even ponderosa pine forests.

To find them look in oak groves. They usually occur only in pairs or small family groups.

This is the largest nuthatch in North America, only 5-3/4 inches long, bill tip to tail tip.

They eat mostly insects in summer. So, they only visit feeders in fall and winter to eat nuts and sunflower seeds.

They are year-round residents in every state in the Lower 48. But they don't occur everywhere in each state. They are resident well into Canada, south of the boreal forests.

These upside-down birds will nest in bird houses. The dimensions are the same as those made for chickadees: 5x5-inch floor, 7 inches floor to ceiling. A hole the size of a Quarter. No perch.

This nest box has the right sized entrance hole for nuthatches, wrens, and chickadees, 1-1/8 inches.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Photo of Red-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch. Greg Gillson.

Red-breasted Nuthatches are birds of conifer forests. They are resident from southern Alaska across Canada and in the northern tier of US states. They also live year-round in Appalachians in the East, and mountains of the West south into Mexico. In summer they nest farther north in Canada.

To find them look in pine trees. They often appear singly or in pairs.

Red-breasted Nuthatches move south in winter in response to food supply. In some years they stay north in their summer range. In other years they move southward. Every few years they irrupt so that large numbers move south throughout ever state in the Lower 48, visiting feeders.

These birds visit feeders in fall and winter. In fall, they may take sunflower seeds and hide them away for winter. Back-and-forth they come and go at the feeder. They also love nuts, peanut butter, and suet.

These nuthatches usually excavate their own nests.

Brown-headed Nuthatch

Photo of Brown-headed Nuthatch at bird feeder
Brown-headed Nuthatch. mlmclaren. Pixabay

These tiny little birds live year-round in pine forests in the Southeast--Virginia to easternmost Texas.

To find these birds, listen in pine woods. They travel in loose flocks, continuously making small contact calls. Their song is described as like a rubber duck squeak.

Offer these birds black oil sunflower seeds, nuts, and suet.

Pygmy Nuthatch

Photo of Pygmy Nuthatch eating spider
Pygmy Nuthatch. Greg Gillson.

These birds inhabit ponderosa and Jeffery pine in mountains of the West, from British Columbia well into Mexico.

To find them, search in stands of mature pines in campgrounds and ski resorts. Listen for large traveling flocks giving constant peeping calls.

Pygmy Nuthatches are even smaller than Brown-headed Nuthatches! They are only 4-1/4 inches long, bill tip to tail tip.

They eat nuts and sunflower seeds.

What do you feed upside-down birds to attract to your feeder? What do nuthatches eat?

We discussed this a little bit above. Here are more details.

Since nuthatches look for food on the bark, beetles are a major food source. They also eat caterpillars and spiders.

Thus, live mealworms are a favorite food of nuthatches.

They are called NUT-hatches, after all. And they do love nuts. In their natural habitat, White-breasted Nuthatch eats acorns from oaks as well as hazelnuts and beechnuts

The other three nuthatches eat pine nuts in the forests where they live.

If you purchase a mixed seed variety with peanuts and tree nuts, the nuthatches will thank you!

Nuthatches love black oil sunflower seeds! They can't chew like sparrows and finches. So, they must take the seed away to open it. They hold the seed with their feet and pound it open with their bill. You may hear woodpecker-like tapping in the woods in fall and winter, only to discover it is nuthatches!

In the fall, nuthatches store seeds away in holes and crevices in the bark. They'll eat them later in the winter. This future food supply is called a cache. Hundreds of sunflower seeds may disappear each day in fall this way!

Nuthatches love to eat peanuts! Unsalted. Out of the shell. They don't mind them large and unbroken.

Nuthatches love suet! Plain suet seems just as appealing to most feeder birds as the fancy ones with fruit, mealworms, or seeds.

A suet supplement or suet replacement is peanut butter. You may find products online for peanut butter suet, or products called Bark Butter and Peanut Dough.

Here is a peanut butter suet.

This is a suet I have bought myself:

What kind of feeders do nuthatches like?

Nuthatches aren't too particular about their feeders. They don't spend much time there. They just grab a nut or seed and run.

However, to keep the competition with larger birds down here are some suggestions.

Tube feeders with black oil sunflower seeds are favored by finches, chickadees and nuthatches. Larger birds can't fit on the small perches.

Nuthatches easily pass through caged bird feeders. These have feeders inside a cage. Only smaller birds can get in to the food.

Of course, nuthatches love suet. Suet must be fed in special suet feeders.

And don't forget the peanut feeder. These bird feeders dispense shelled peanuts.

When do upside-down birds come to your feeder?

Nuthatches eat mostly invertebrates in summer. They feed these to their nestlings. So, it is not unusual for the nuthatches to "disappear" from feeders in spring and summer. They'll be back in the fall.

Begin looking for nuthatches in your feeder in fall. At that time, they may take the seeds away and store them for winter. They cache seeds away in the bark of a tree--the rougher the bark, the better. And they don't go far. Chickadees also cache seeds and they only go up to 130 feet from the feeder. So nuthatches are probably similar.

Nuthatches will visit daily all winter into spring. 

During nesting season, nuthatches switch to an insectivorous diet. They will stop visiting the feeder in spring and feed only invertebrates to their young.

Related articles

Attracting Red-breasted Nuthatches to your backyard

Where do Red-breasted Nuthatches like to nest?

7 Kinds of Bird Feeders and the Birds That Like Them

Setting Up Your First Bird Feeder

Questions about suet? Feeding Birds Suet

25 Reasons Birds Aren't Coming to Your Feeder

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