This, that or the other thing

Not everything in nature is what it seems at first glance

|  Story by Meghan McMahon  |


Sometimes, our eyes play tricks on us. This can especially be true when outside enjoying the great outdoors, where there is so much to take in. Have you ever looked up and spotted clouds in the form of a heart or another well-known shape? Or been on a hike and mistaken a tree root for a snake or a fallen log for a bear or another animal?

And sometimes it’s not that our eyes are playing tricks on us, but that two or more animals do look alike or are often confused from one another. Take chipmunks and 13-lined ground squirrels. They have similar appearances, habitats and behaviors, so confusion between the two is to be expected. The key to telling them apart is their stripes. A ground squirrel’s stripes end at its neck, while a chipmunk’s extend up onto its head.

Another common case of mistaken identity: muskrats and beavers. They have similar-colored fur and inhabit the same areas, so being able to tell them apart can be tricky. Some good rules of thumb: Beavers have wide, flat tails, while muskrats have longer, skinnier tails, according to the Washington Post. Plus, you can usually see the entire body of a muskrat while it swims, but when beavers swim only their heads are usually visible. Beavers are also much larger than muskrats.

Many times, we assume the worst about a creature, thinking it is something much more dangerous than it really is. Case in point: The vast majority of spiders aren’t dangerous to humans, and the same goes for snakes. Other times, we simply think that animals that we know of are present right here in Will County when they aren’t, although some look-alikes may be.

Here’s a closer look at some other animals in Illinois that are often thought to be something else entirely and some tips for knowing what is what.

We do have bobcats in Illinois, but they are rather elusive.

A bobcat walking on a fallen tree.

Bobcat (Photo via Shuttestock)

Most of the cats you see outside — even the ones that seem a little bigger than normal — are just housecats or feral cats. However, we do have bobcats in Illinois, although sightings are limited because they are good at remaining unseen. These cats look similar to a housecat, but are about twice the size, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. They stand between 20 inches and 23 inches tall and are 30 inches to 35 inches long. They are most easily identified by the tufts of hair on the tops of their ear, which domesticated cats do not have.

Bobcats were once nearly extirpated from Illinois, and as a result were a protected species from 1977 to 1999, according to Wildlife Illinois. Their population has rebounded, however, and is expected to continue to grow. They can be found throughout the state, but they are most common in the southern third of Illinois.

Bobcats prefer forested areas, particularly forests with a dense understory that they use for cover and building dens. They often hunt along fields at the edges of forests, usually at night or around dusk or dawn. 

Storks vs. egrets and herons

A great egret walking through a field.

Great egret (Photo by Anthony Schalk)

We don’t have storks in Will County, or even in Illinois for that matter. But wood storks, the only stork that lives in the United States, are tall and gangly birds, much like the great egrets and great blue herons that populate our waterways. 

Even wood storks, though, aren’t the bird people think of when they think of the birds that signal the arrival of a new baby. That’s the white stork, which is native to Europe, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

If you see a tall, all-white bird in Will County, it’s not a stork at all; it’s a great egret. These birds are celebrated for their all-white plumage, so much so that they were almost hunted to extinction for their plumes, the Cornell Lab reports. Great blue herons are another bird people sometimes think is a stork. Blue herons are not the bright blue hue of a blue jay or an indigo bunting, but are a blue-gray color, sometimes in lighter shades, especially when seen at a distance.

That lizard you saw was probably a salamander.

A blue-spotted salamander on a leaf.

Blue-spotted salamander (Photo via Shuttestock)

We do have lizards in Will County, although only a few species and only in a few habitats. It’s more likely the lizard you saw is a salamander, and salamanders are actually amphibians.

Illinois is home to some lizard species, six to be exact, according to Wildlife Illinois. A few, like the slender glass lizard and the six-lined racerunner, live in Will County, but their habitats are limited. The glass lizard has been spotted at Kankakee Sands Preserve, and six-lined racerunners are among the many species that live at Braidwood Dunes and Savanna Nature Preserve.

Salamanders mostly remain unseen, but they are more common in Will County than lizards. Among the species found here are the blue-spotted salamander, eastern tiger salamander, small-mouthed salamander and spotted salamander.

Not all blue birds are bluebirds. Or blue jays.

An indigo bunting on a leaf.

Indigo bunting (Photo via Shutterstock)

Blue isn’t a very common color in the animal kingdom, but several birds that live in Will County sport blue plumage; it’s not just bluebirds and blue jays. Those birds are the most well-known blue birds in our area, but indigo buntings are also a bright blue color. And barn swallows and tree swallows have blue plumage, as do belted kingfishers.

Apart from their shared blue color, these birds don’t look that much alike, and in many cases it’s only the males that sport the famed blue feathers. If you only catch a glimpse of blue flying by, it may be difficult to tell a bluebird from a blue jay. But it’s helpful to know some of the key identifying features.

For example, male bluebirds have blue heads and backs, but their chests and throats are a rusty brown color. Blue jays, on the other hand, also have blue heads and backs, but their chests are white. They can most easily be identified by their blue head crest, black ring around their necks and barred wings and tails.

Meanwhile, male indigo buntings are almost entirely bright blue with silver bills, while belted kingfishers are more of a grayish-blue color with long, pointed bills. Tree swallows have bluish-green backs and white breasts, and their wing feathers are black in color. Barn swallows have darker, steel-blue feathers on their backs, wings and tails and have reddish-brown feathers on their breasts, necks and faces.

That big spider you saw probably wasn’t a brown recluse or a black widow. 

Close-up view of the violin shape on a brown recluse spider.

Brown recluse spider (Photo via Shutterstock)

The United States is home to more than 3,700 species of spiders, but of those only about 12 are considered medically important, meaning a bite from them is dangerous for humans, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health

The vast majority of spiders we encounter in Illinois are harmless, and even the ones that are venomous are not aggressive and only bite when threatened. The most common venomous spider in the United States is the brown recluse. Its normal range includes much of the southeastern U.S., including the southern part of Illinois. It is found outside its normal range, including northern portions of Illinois, but these sightings are more rare, according to the state health department. 

Brown recluses are light brown in color, with a darker-colored violin-shaped mark just behind their eyes. Their legs are not banded or spiny, but solid brown in color. And while most spiders have eight eyes, brown recluses have six that are arranged in three pairs.

Three species of black widow spiders also live in the United States, including the northern black widow, which is found in Illinois. Only female black widows are considered dangerous, and they are easiest to identify because they are shiny black in color and have red markings — sometimes hourglass shaped, but not always — on their abdomens. 

The hoo-hoo call you hear might be a mourning dove, not an owl.

A mourning dove on a branch.

Mourning dove (Photo via Shutterstock)

Mourning doves have a sad, mournful call, hence their name, and their somber hooo-oooo-oooo call is often confused with that of an owl, according to Journey North

Mourning doves, though, typically have a more drawn-out call, elongating the vowel sounds, while many of the owls that populate Will County have calls that sound like shorter syllables. 

Here’s the call of a mourning dove.


Now compare that with a great horned owl.


That snake in the water isn’t a water moccasin. And we don’t have rattlesnakes here either.

A northern water snake poking out of the water.

Northern water snake (Photo by Chad Merda)

Right out of the gate, it’s helpful to know that no venomous snakes live in Will County. We do, however, have a few snakes here that look — and act — like venomous snakes, which causes a lot of cases of mistaken identity. The northern water snake, for example, is a non-venomous water snake, but it’s often confused for a water moccasin or a cottonmouth or a copperhead. The cottonmouth and copperhead are both native to Illinois, but both are restricted to southern portions of the state, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. And water moccasin is just another name for a cottonmouth snake, so they are of no concern in Will County either.

Another nonvenomous snake often confused for a more dangerous one is the fox snake, which is commonly thought to be a rattlesnake. One reason for the confusion is that fox snakes have tails that end in a sharp point, and they sometimes shake their tails when threatened. But you can rest easy, because no rattlesnakes live in Will County. One species of rattlesnake, the eastern massasauga rattlesnake, does live in Illinois, but only in very limited habitats. Today, it is thought to be in only a handful of counties: Clinton, Cook, Knox and Piatt. Even in those counties, they are limited to only one or two small habitat areas, according to the Illinois Natural History Survey. Massasaugas did at one point live in Will County, but they are now thought to be extirpated. The snakes are listed on Illinois’ endangered species list

The hawk soaring overhead may be a turkey vulture.

A turkey vulture in flight.

Turkey vulture (Photo courtesy of Amy Bartling)

In flight, soaring high above, people often mistake turkey vultures for red-tailed hawks, Cornell Lab reports. If you can get a good look, though, there are several key differences between them. First, a red-tailed hawk is mostly white or pale-colored from below, save for its reddish-orange tail feathers and dark-colored wingtips. A turkey vulture, on the other hand, is darker colored from below. And if you can get a closer look, their heads are very telling. While the hawks have brown heads with white throats, a turkey vulture has a red head. Even their manner of flight can be a telling clue. Hawks soar steadily, while turkey vultures look a little wobbly and unsteady in flight. 

Another common case of mistaken bird ID is bald eagles and turkey vultures, especially when the birds are in flight. Both birds are predominantly dark brown or black in color, but their wings look different in flight and are the key to easily telling them apart. Bald eagles fly with their wings outstretched, so they look flat in flight, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Turkey vultures, on the other hand, arch their wings in flight, which gives them a V shape on either side of their head.


(Lead image courtesy of Darek Konopka‎)

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