Our local birds: Where are they now?

A look at who stays, who goes and who’s just dropping in

|  Story by Meghan McMahon |


Birds are a constant in our lives, always present in our forests and prairies and wetlands and yards and parks and gardens. But the birds we see from day to day evolves throughout the year. Some birds are typically present, while others move in and out with the seasons. Take a look at some of our most common and beloved birds in Will County and when we are most likely to see them.

American robin

Robin perched on a branch

(Photo by Anthony Schalk)

We think of robins as birds that herald the arrival of spring, but in reality at least some robins stick around Will County all year. Other robins do migrate south, but many stay on their breeding range year-round, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Even though they are here in the dead of winter, you aren’t as likely to see them, however. In winter, robins are quieter and tend to flock together in forests where food is plentiful. You are less likely to see them on your lawn when the ground is frozen because they can’t get at the worms below.

Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadee on a stump

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Little black-capped chickadees don’t migrate and can be found across the range in the northern portions of the United States all year, according to the Cornell Lab. Although they stick around for all seasons, you may happen to see them more often in winter. That’s because in winter they are frequent visitors to our bird feeders, feasting on the provided nuts, seeds and suet. In the summer, they mostly eat insects.

Blue jay

A blue jay in a bare tree

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Blue jays aren’t typically migratory, so we see these blue birds locally all year long, according to the Cornell Lab. They typically live in forests, but they are frequent feeder visitors as well. They may make their presence known with their loud and feisty call, and they can be bullies, driving other birds away from feeders and other food sources.

Canada goose

Steam rises around Canada geese on a cold morning

(Photo by Chad Merda)

Our most familiar goose can be seen across northern Illinois year-round, and these noisy birds are a common sight at our neighborhood ponds and just about every other kind of waterway in every season. Although we see Canada geese year-round, they do migrate, according to Wildlife Illinois. Some of our local birds may travel south for winter, and other birds travel here for the winter from their breeding territories farther north.

Dark-eyed junco

A dark-eyed junco on the ground

(Photo courtesy of Mat Zook)

The first dark-eyed junco sighting of fall is often an unwelcome sign that winter is fast approaching. That’s because these so-called snowbirds are only seen in most parts of the United States in winter, arriving here from their breeding grounds in Canada, according to the American Bird Conservancy. They typically begin arriving in October each fall and then disappear again in early spring.

Great egret

A great egret in a wetland.

(Photo by Anthony Schalk)

Great egrets are quite common around our waterways in the summer, but they disappear when winter begins to set in. They migrate south in small flocks, traveling during the day. Some will travel as far south as the southern part of Central America or the West Indies, while others winter in the far southern coastal United States or the coasts of Mexico, according to the Cornell Lab.

Great blue heron

 A great blue heron diving into water to catch a fish

(Photo courtesy of Darek Konopka)

In our area, great blue herons typically stick around all year, but those that reside farther north in their breeding territory often migrate south as far as Central and South America in the winter, according to the National Audubon Society. Locally, look for them anywhere there is open water in the winter, where they can be seen foraging for food.


A mallard duck on ice.

(Photo by Anthony Schalk)

Mallards are the most common and widespread duck in the United States and are a common sight at waterways all across Illinois and the United States. Most of the mallards in the United States stay in their territory year-round, but populations in Canada and Alaska do migrate south for the winter, according to the Cornell Lab. In the winter, look for them near moving waters that don’t typically freeze over.

Northern cardinal

Northern cardinal in a tree

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Cardinals don’t migrate, so it’s not uncommon to catch sight of them offering a pop of color against the winter landscape. Although they stick around all year, cardinals can provide a sign of spring’s imminent arrival. They form breeding pairs in late winter, and males are among the first to start singing out for a mate, often before spring even arrives, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation. If you hear the familiar “cheer-cheer-cheer” song in late winter or early spring, look for a male cardinal perched up high at the top of a tree or building.

Red-tailed hawk

Red-tailed hawk perched high in a tree

(Photo courtesy of Barb Parisi)

Like great blue herons, our local population of red-tailed hawks can be seen throughout the year. In more northern regions, where winter weather is more inhospitable, the hawks will migrate south for warmer environs, according to Cornell Lab. We may even see an influx of these common hawks in winter, with some birds traveling here for the winter from their breeding grounds in northern Canada.

Red-winged blackbird

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Robins are the bird most often considered a harbinger of spring, but that’s really a title that should go to the red-winged blackbird. The red-winged blackbirds that nest in northern Illinois migrate south for the winter, but they are among the first birds to arrive back on their breeding grounds each year. Males will arrive first, sometimes as early as January, with females typically arriving in March or April, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Ruby-throated hummingbird

Ruby-throated hummingbird on a branch

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Ruby-throated hummingbirds don’t stick around all year, winging their way to Central America for the winter, according to the Cornell Lab. These tiny birds make an impressive journey, flying non-stop over the Gulf of Mexico each spring and fall. Look for them to start arriving for breeding season beginning in about mid-April. They’ll begin heading south as early as late July or early August, with males departing first. Some female and juvenile hummingbirds will stick around until mid-October, sometimes even later.

Sandhill cranes

Sandhill cranes in wetlands

(Photo via Shutterstock)

In northern Illinois, sandhill cranes are mostly seen — and heard — as they pass through each spring and fall on their migrations. Most sandhill cranes are long-distance migrants, breeding in some far northern portions of the United States and much of Canada and spending their winters in the southern United States and northern Mexico, the National Audubon Society reports. While it’s not common, some breeding pairs of these cranes may also choose to breed and nest here in northern Illinois, so don’t entirely discount seeing these regal birds here in the summer months.


A mute swan floating on water

Mute swan (Photo by Anthony Schalk)

Will County is home to three swan species — mute swans, trumpeter swans and tundra swans. Mute swans are not native to Illinois or the United States, but they have become quite common and can be found across the state all year. They are distinguishable from our other swan species by their bright orange bills. Trumpeter swans and tundra swans are far less common. Tundra swans are generally only seen in Illinois between October and December and February and April, when they migrate across our area, according to Wildlife Illinois. Trumpeter swans, the largest of the three, generally only winter here, arriving as early as October and leaving as late as April, but a small number may stay in the state year-round.


Red-headed woodpecker (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Seven woodpecker species live across northern Illinois, and almost all our local woodpeckers can be seen in the area all year. Downy, hairy, pileated, red-bellied and red-headed woodpeckers all stick around the area year-round and can be seen in all seasons. Some northern flickers migrate, but others stay in their breeding grounds all year. Only the yellow-bellied sapsucker does not have at least some part of its population in Illinois at all times of the year, according to Wildlife Illinois. They can typically be seen in northern Illinois only in April and May and then in September and October as they pass through on their migrations.

Wood duck

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Wood ducks live across Illinois, but here in the northern half of the state we only see them in the summer. Our wood ducks migrate south for winter, although the ducks in the southern half of the state do not always migrate, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Unlike mallards, which we typically see around open bodies of water, wood ducks prefer wooded swamps or water surrounded by mature trees.

(Lead image via Shutterstock)

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