Chicago is a vibrant and diverse city, and this is reflected in its bird population as well. From colorful songbirds to majestic raptors, there is no shortage of interesting and beautiful birds to be found in the Windy City. In this post, we will take a closer look at some common backyard birds that can be found in Chicago, including their scientific names, key identifying features, and interesting behaviors.
Whether you are an experienced birder or just starting to learn about birds, this guide will help you appreciate and identify the feathered friends that call Chicago home.
1. Downy Woodpecker
Scientific name: Dryobates pubescens
Length: 14-19 centimeters (5-7 inches)
Body mass: 20-33 grams
Wingspan: 25-32 centimeters (9-12 inches)
Lifespan: 1-2.5 years
The smallest woodpeckers in North America, the Downy Woodpeckers are a widespread species found throughout the continent. They inhabit the forested areas of the United States and Canada.
The appearance of Downy Woodpeckers is almost identical to Hairy Woodpeckers (Leuconotopicus villosus) in plumage; only the latter is significantly larger in size. Their plumage is black on the upper parts and white on the undersides. Their face is white with black marks running across their crown and eyes.
The adult sexes of this species look almost identical, with one major difference. There’s a red patch at the back of the males’ crown, which is absent in their female counterparts.
A common resident in Chicago, the Downy Woodpeckers are found in the city all year long. While they might not be as common in urban areas, you can spot them in the river groves, forests, and woodlands.
Attracting Downy Woodpeckers to your backyard
When attracting any woodpecker, including the Downy, to your backyard, you can never go wrong with suet! Suet can lure them into any yard the fastest.
While we’d suggest you purchase a suet feeder for the same, smearing it directly on tree bark works just as well. If you’re looking for alternatives beyond suet, peanut butter, and sunflower seeds are other great choices.
2. Red-winged Blackbird
Scientific name: Agelaius phoeniceus
Length: 22-24 centimeters (8-9 inches) in males; 17-18 centimeters (6-7 inches) in females
Body mass: 64-82 grams
Wingspan: 32-40 centimeters (12-16 inches)
Lifespan: 2-5 years
Belonging to the New World Blackbird family, the Red-winged Blackbirds are claimed to be the second-most abundant land bird in North America (followed by the bird we’re going to talk about next).
With their range extending into several parts of Central America, these icterids have more than twenty subspecies.
The adult sexes of these blackbirds are highly dimorphic in both size and plumage, with the males being larger and possessing the namesake red wings. Their overall plumage is a glossy black, with two broad red wing bars around their shoulders. These red bars are followed by smaller, yellow bars, which are only visible at rest.
Their female counterparts have a dull, almost sparrow-like plumage. Their upper parts are brown, while the head and undersides are pale-buff, with heavy streaking on their belly and rump.
Redwings prefer to inhabit wetland habitats where they always have access to fresh water. In Chicago, you’ll commonly spot them nesting on trees located on lakefronts.
During summers, their population is more concentrated around wetland habitats. It is in the winter months that they spread out and are more commonly spotted.
Attracting Red-winged Blackbirds to your backyard
The Red-winged Blackbirds are most likely to visit backyards after summer when they’re migrating. Their diet during this time is dominated by seeds and grains, both of which are great choices to fill your feeders with.
Although these blackbirds are instinctive ground feeders, if you’re hoping to attract them to a feeder, installing tray feeders with sizeable platforms is the way to go.
3. American Robin
Scientific name: Turdus migratorius
Length: 21-28 centimeters (9-11 inches)
Body mass: 58-92 grams
Wingspan: 32-41.5 centimeters (12-16 inches)
Lifespan: 3-14 years
Declared the most abundant bird in North America by the Partners in Flight Database (2019), the American Robins are a widespread thrush species found all over the continent. Having seven subspecies, these thrushes are migratory and travel south of Canada to spend their winters.
The plumage of American Robins is the brightest in the entire Turdus genus, with their vibrant, dusky orange chest being the reason behind their names. The males have a jet-black head and somewhat duller upper parts.
Their undersides, right from the throat up to the lower belly, are orangish-brown, while the rump is white. Their bills are orange as well, with broken white eye-rings surrounding their eyes and white chin streaks.
The females resemble their male counterparts closely; only their upper parts have a dull brownish wash, while the undersides lack vibrance.
In Chicago, these robins are popular summer residents, commonly spotted nesting around orchards, parks, and woodlands of the city. During winters, only a small population stays behind while the others migrate southward.
Attracting American Robins to your backyard
American Robins are not regular backyard visitors. Therefore, if you plan on attracting them, you must focus on providing fresh water more than food.
While setting up a feeder for them, ensure that it is placed close to the freshwater source so that when they come looking for water, they happen to find your treats as well. They enjoy eating fresh fruits like berries, apples, and grapes. Mealworms work equally well for them.
4. House Sparrow
Scientific name: Passer domesticus
Length: 14-19 centimeters (5-7 inches)
Body mass: 24-40 grams
Wingspan: 18-25 centimeters (7-9 inches)
Lifespan: 2-4 years
The House Sparrows are a tiny but invasive sparrow species native to the Middle East that has now been introduced in many other parts of the world, including the Americas. Their appearance isn’t particularly remarkable, but quite typical of the Old World Sparrow family.
Males have a grey head and brown upper parts, including wings and tail. Two brown patches extend from their eyes and join their mantle, while a black patch covers their chin. On their throat, you’ll notice a faint white band, below which the rest of their underparts are white.
The females of this species are colored more palely, with a buff-colored head, greyish-white chin, and underparts. Their upper parts, although brown, are paler in shade and have lesser streaks than the males. They’re also the smaller of the two sexes.
Although the sparrows of Chicago have adapted quite well to the urban areas, you’re more likely to spot them in grasslands and tall hayfields, where they feed by plucking seeds from stalks.
Attracting House Sparrows to your backyard
Despite their tiny size, House Sparrows do not find feeding from tube feeders comfortable. You should either set up a ground feeding tray for them, or install a window or house feeder.
Oats and buckwheat are their favorite, so you can use these to lure them in. Once they’re a frequent visitor, any seed or grain will keep them coming as long as you re-stock regularly.
5. Blue Jay
Scientific name: Cyanocitta cristata
Length: 22-30 centimeters (9-12 inches)
Body mass: 72-108 grams
Wingspan: 35-44 centimeters (13-17 inches)
Lifespan: 4-7 years
Endemic to the eastern parts of North America, the Blue Jays are a striking species belonging to the Corvid family. The most widespread jays of the United States, these birds are partially migratory, with the eastern populations migrating southward during winters.
As their name indicates, the plumage of these jays is predominantly blue, with a brighter shade on their head, secondary feathers, and tails. Their mantle is relatively paler, almost cerulean blue, while the underparts are white and unmarked.
Their white face has dark lines running through their eyes, joining a U-shaped mark which is located on their throat. Their wings and tail have black markings on them. Both sexes possess the same plumage, but the males are slightly larger in size.
Blue Jays populate Chicago heavily during spring and summer months, when they’re ready to breed. They’re a common sight on trees around residential areas as well as in woodlands during this time. However, during winter, most of them migrate to the southern regions of Illinois.
Attracting Blue Jays to your backyard
To attract larger birds like Blue Jays, you’ll need to install a feeder with a sizeable seating platform and a steady footing. They’re fond of all kinds of nuts, especially peanuts, and peanut butter. Other popular feeding choices include mealworms, suet, and cracked corn.
6. Common Grackle
Scientific name: Quiscalus quiscula
Length: 28-34 centimeters (inches)
Body mass: 74-145 grams
Wingspan: 36-46 centimeters (14-18 inches)
Lifespan: 17-22 years
The Common Grackles are a large North American blackbird species that heavily populate the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. Although they’re fairly common within their range, their depleting population in some areas has resulted in the IUCN giving them a near-threatened status.
In comparison to other, larger grackle species, the sexes of Common Grackle are not as dimorphic, but you can still tell them apart.
The males, being the larger sex, have an iridescent black plumage with a purple or greenish sheen all over. Their head has a strong blue iridescence which is noticeable even from a significant distance.
The smaller females also possess an iridescent black plumage, but one much duller in comparison to the males. Their tail is also significantly shorter than the males. However, both sexes possess dark, bulbous bills and yellow irises.
Although these grackles are year-round residents in all of Illinois, during winters, all the northern populations migrate southward. In other words, they’re a summer resident in Chicago and are commonly spotted around suburban lawns, feedlots, agricultural lands, and city parks in spring and summer.
Attracting Common Grackles your backyard
Because Common Grackles have the reputation of a bully, most birders prefer to keep them away from their yard. However, if you want to invite them to yours, simply spreading seeds on the ground is enough. Being ground foragers, they enjoy ground feeding the most.
7. American Goldfinch
Scientific name: Spinus tritis
Length: 10-14 centimeters (4-5 inches)
Body mass: 11-24 grams
Wingspan: 19-22 centimeters (7-8 inches)
Lifespan: 8-11 years
Well-known for their bright yellow plumage, the American Goldfinches are members of the Finch family that inhabit a wide range of open habitats throughout the United States.
The sexes of this species are easily distinguishable during breeding months, but appear quite similar outside of the breeding season. The one difference that you can use to tell them apart at any given time of the year is the males’ black cap, which is absent in the females.
Breeding males have an overall yellow plumage, including their face and mantle; only their rump is white. Their wings and forked tail are black, with white markings on the former. Non-breeding males appear duller, almost olive-brown, after they undergo the autumn molt.
Female American Goldfinches possess a yellowish-brown plumage that appears slightly brighter in the breeding months. Both sexes have pinkish bills that turn orange in the breeding months.
While the Goldfinches are permanent residents in many parts of Illinois, in Chicago, they’re mainly a summer resident, mass-migrating to the southern regions of the state in fall.
Attracting American Goldfinches to your backyard
If you wish to attract the goldfinches to your yard, your best chance of doing so is using seeds of sunflower and nyjer, both of which are their favorite. Once they become more regular, you could switch to other seeds as well.
Alternatively, planting bright flowering plants is also known to attract them to your yard.
8. European Starling
Scientific name: Sturnus vulgaris
Length: 19-24 centimeters (7-9 inches)
Body mass: 54-109 grams
Wingspan: 30-44 centimeters (12-17 inches)
Lifespan: 1.5-3 years
As their name indicates, the European Starlings are a starling species that were originally endemic to Eurasia, but have established a steady population in North America, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji.
European Starlings have an overall iridescent black plumage covered with white speckles. Their bills are black all year, but turn yellow in the breeding season. Both sexes closely resemble each other, but some differences are obvious upon a closer look.
The females don’t match the bright iridescence of the males’ plumage. Their neck feathers are shorter and more pointed than the latter, and the undersides are more spotted.
In Chicago, these starlings are year-round residents and are abundant throughout the urban and suburban areas. You can also find them around forest edges, agricultural lands, farmsteads, and landfills.
Attracting European Starlings to your backyard
When European Starlings come to a backyard, they’re likely to scare away other, smaller birds from the feeders. This is something you must keep in mind while trying to attract them. To lure them in, you can offer cracked corn and kernels of hulled sunflower seeds in your feeders.
9. Northern Flicker
Scientific name: Colaptes auratus
Length: 28-36 centimeters (11-14 inches)
Body mass: 84-167 grams
Wingspan: 42-54 centimeters (17-21 inches)
Lifespan: 7-9 years
The Northern Flickers are a North American woodpecker species with the highest number of nicknames in the entire woodpecker family. Some of their common colloquial names include Clape, Yellowhammer, Harry-wicket, and Gaffer Woodpecker.
The plumage of Northern Flicker is almost entirely beige-colored, except for a whitish rump and a pale grey crown extending to the back of their head. On their throat, you’ll find a large, crescent-shaped black patch, below which black dots are scattered all over their undersides.
Their wings have a darker brown wash and heavy black streaks, with a black tail and reddish undertail. There’s a red patch towards the end of their crown.
You can distinguish between the sexes by their face; males possess two black marks extending from the side of their bills, which are absent in females.
In Chicago, these woodpeckers are common summer residents; however, a major population migrates to the southern parts of Illinois during winter. Only a few with access to food sources remain in the city all year long.
Attracting Northern Flickers to your backyard
Being a summer resident in the city, Northern Flickers are most likely to come to your yard during the months of spring and summer. Suet feeders work best for these woodpeckers, but there are other ways of attracting them as well.
Planting nectar-producing flowering plants in your yard can speed up their arrival in your yard, and so can the presence of bugs in your backyard trees.
10. Dark-eyed Junco
Scientific name: Junco hyemalis
Length: 13-17 centimeters (5-6 inches)
Body mass: 18-30 grams
Wingspan: 19-25 centimeters (7-9 inches)
Lifespan: 3-11 years
Known for their highly variable subspecies, the Dark-eyed Juncos is a small New World Sparrow species widely distributed throughout the temperate regions of North America.
Although their subspecies display a great deal of variation, the nominate subspecies have mainly grey plumages. There are dark touches around their eyes, with their head, chest, and upper parts covered in grey. The undersides are white, with pale pinkish bills and legs.
Although both sexes of this species have many similarities, the wings of females have a brownish wash, unlike the males that possess grey wings.
Dark-eyed Juncos are winter migrants in Chicago, and leave the city by spring. During autumn and winter months, you can spot them in the grasslands, suburban lawns, corn fields, shrubs, hedgerows, and weedy areas of the city.
Attracting Dark-eyed Juncos to your backyard
Because Dark-eyed Juncos are ground feeders, low-platform feeders work best for them. If you’re not worried about creating a mess, scattering food for them directly on the ground works just as well.
These juncos are primarily granivores, with their favorite foods including hulled sunflower seeds, white proso millet seeds, and cracked corn.
11. House Finch
Scientific name: Haemorhous mexicanus
Length: 12.5-15 centimeters (5-6 inches)
Body mass: 16-27 grams
Wingspan: 20-25 centimeters (8-10 inches)
Lifespan: 9-11 years
The House Finches are an American Rosefinch species endemic to the open and semi-open habitats of western regions of the continent. East of Hawaii, these finches live as an introduced species.
The appearance of House Finches is typical of the finch family; they’re medium-sized, having a lean body with brown streaking and a square-tipped tail. Their eyes are small and dark, while the bone-colored bills are large and conical.
Both sexes of the species are almost identical, distinguished by the faint rose-colored wash on the head and chest of the males.
House Finches are year-round residents of Chicago, where they primarily dwell close to human settlements. You’ll often spot them around suburbs, backyards, buildings, parks, and gardens.
Attracting House Finches to your backyard
Small birds like the finches are comfortable feeding from sock or tube feeders, where they’re likely to meet less competition as well. In terms of food, chips, and hulls of sunflower, seeds of millet and nyjer are all great choices for them.
12. Northern Cardinal
Scientific name: Cardinalis cardinalis
Length: 20-23 centimeters (8-9 inches)
Body mass: 30-65 grams
Wingspan: 25-32 centimeters (9-12 inches)
Lifespan: 3-8 years
Well known for both the vibrant plumage and melodious songs of the males, the Northern Cardinals are a North American cardinal species that densely populate the United States.
These birds are common in the eastern and central regions of the country, and migrate southward to Mexico and Central America during winter.
The adults of this species are strongly dimorphic in their plumage. The plumage of males is vibrant red overall, save for the black mask on their face. In contrast, the females are mainly olive brown in color.
The tip of their crest is red, much like the males. Both sexes possess black eyes, red bills, legs, and feet.
There was a time when Northern Cardinals arrived in Chicago only as summer residents. They’d spend their breeding months here and travel southward for winter. However, today, these birds are year-round residents of the city, which is how they proudly call them their state bird.
Their most preferred habitats include woodlands, thickets, and areas with brushes and weeds. They’re also frequent visitors in parks, suburban lawns, and backyards.
Attracting Northern Cardinals to your backyard
Unlike most birds that have flexible feeding timings, the Northern Cardinals are quite rigid and feed only during early mornings or late evenings. Some of their favorite foods include white milo seeds, cracked corn, peanuts, and sunflower seeds.
If you keep your backyard feeder filled with any of these around their mealtime consistently, they’re bound to take notice soon enough.
13. Black-capped Chickadee
Scientific name: Poecile atricapillus
Length: 12-16 centimeters (4-5 inches)
Body mass: 10-15 grams
Wingspan: 16-20 centimeters (6-8 inches)
Lifespan: 1-3 years
Endemic to the deciduous and mixed forests of North America, the Black-capped Chickadees are a tiny tit species that are renowned for their body temperature regulating abilities.
These tits are so well-liked across the continent that they’re the state bird of two states of the U.S. and the provincial bird of New Brunswick in Canada.
Their plumages are a mix of grey, white, and buff, save for the black bib and cap that they’re named after. Their undersides are white and unmarked, with buff flanks and grey wings and tail with dark edges. Both sexes appear identical in plumage, but males are larger in size.
In all of Illinois, the population of Black-capped Chickadees is most concentrated in Chicago. These little birdies are absent in the southern parts of the state but remain a year-round resident in the city.
They’re often spotted around parks, woodlots, shrublands, and thickets and are frequent visitors of suburban backyards.
Attracting Black-capped Chickadees in your backyard
To attract insectivores like Chickadees to your yard, you should always start with mealworms. The tits find them irresistible and are bound to return to your yard once they’ve tasted a treat.
However, you needn’t feed them mealworms on a daily basis. Once they’re a frequent visitor, you can switch to other favorites like peanuts and seeds of sunflower and safflower.
14. Rock Pigeon
Scientific name: Columba livia
Length: 28-37 centimeters (11-15 inches)
Body mass: 235-620 grams
Wingspan: 61-74 centimeters (24-28 inches)
Lifespan: 4-6 years
Ranked among the most widespread pigeon species throughout the world, the Rock Pigeons are large passerines with over twelve subspecies and multiple names. In most areas, though, they’re simply referred to as pigeon.
Rock Pigeons are easily recognizable with their grey plumage, iridescent neck feathers, black twin wing bars, orange irises, and white knob atop their upper mandible. The females resemble their male counterparts closely but have lesser iridescence on their neck feathers.
In Chicago, Rock Pigeons are a common sight in all the urban areas, gathering in large flocks around public squares and crowded streets.
Attracting Rock Pigeons to your backyard
Rock Pigeons are perhaps the easiest bird to attract to your yard on our list. They don’t necessarily need a feeder, feed in flocks, and often return to yards where they find food consistently, even for a week.
In fact, their flock-feeding tendency has led many birders to stay away from them. In terms of food to offer them, you can pick almost any seed or grain at your disposal, and rest assured that it’ll work.
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