Birds to Watch for in the Winter

Late fall and winter can be a great time to look for birds, because they are easier to spot in empty trees and bare forests.

Northern cardinal (Photo courtesy of John D'Agostino)

In northern Illinois, many of the birds we see at this time of year are migrating south for the winter. Some birds, though, spend their winters right here. This includes birds like owls that do not migrate and birds that spend the warmer months farther north and come here for the winters.


Here’s a closer look at some of the birds we see in our area in winter.


Northern cardinals: These birds live in our area year-round. The males are easy to spot in winter because of their bright red color. The females are not all red, but do have red tail feathers and faces that help catch the eye. They like to eat from bird feeders, and they especially enjoy sunflower seeds.

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Downy woodpeckers: These woodpeckers live in our area all year. They have checkered-looking black and white feathers, and the males have a bright red patch on their heads. They are smaller than most woodpeckers, and also have smaller beaks than most other woodpeckers. They like to feast on suet feeders, so they are a common site in backyards.



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Canada geese: Canada geese live in Illinois all year. They like to be near water, even in the winter, so we usually see them around lakes and ponds. Some birds change colors throughout the year, but these geese do not. They are easy to identify by their brown bodies and long black necks and heads with white patches on either side.

Photo courtesy of Joe Wittenkeller

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Black-capped chickadees: These year-round birds. They have jet black heads and white cheeks with a gray body. They are easy to attract to bird feeders. If you keep a bird feeder full through the winter, you’re likely to see these birds in your yard regularly. Their favorite feeder foods are suet, peanut and sunflower.


Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock

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European starlings: These birds like to gather in big, noisy groups and can be seen on roofs or high wires and trees. We see them in Illinois all year. In the warmer months, they appear to be all black. When seen up close though, they are more iridescent. In the winter, the starlings have lighter-colored feathers and are covered in bright white spots.


Photo courtesy of Barbara Riggs Parisi

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Dark-eyed juncos: Dark-eyed juncos are a type of sparrow. They are only in northern Illinois during the winter months, and then travel further north when spring returns. They are gray in color, with white tail feathers. The males are darker in color than the females. They like to eat from bird feeders, but when they aren’t available you often see them on the ground, looking for seeds.



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Red-bellied woodpeckers: Red-bellied woodpeckers do have a reddish color on their bellies, but they appear much paler at a distance. They are easier to identify by the bright red patches on their heads. The males have a red crown and nape, which is the back of the head. The females have red napes but their crowns are whitish or gray in color. They live in Illinois all year.


Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock

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American tree sparrows: These sparrows are ground birds. They look for food and even nest on the ground. They do eat from bird feeders too. Keep an eye out for these rust-colored birds in your yard if you fill your feeders in the winter. American tree sparrows head to the far northern parts of North America for the spring and summer, so we only see them in our area during winter.

Photo courtesy of Paul Dacko

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Snow buntings: These mostly white birds can be more difficult to see when there is snow. But winter is the only time when snow buntings are in Illinois. They are a little easier to spot in flight, because they have black-tipped wings. They often travel in large flocks. These birds also get a little restless, moving to a new spot about every 10 minutes.

Photo via Shutterstock

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Blue jays: These brightly colored birds can be seen in Illinois all year. But some blue jays do migrate south for winter. Blue jays typically are several shades of blue. They are sometimes very bright, and have white or gray underbellies. They love eating acorns. So they are often seen in and around forests and near oak trees.

Photo courtesy of Paul Dacko