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Say Welcome Back To Some of Our Feathered Friends

You can find birds living in our area all year round. But that doesn’t mean the same birds always live here. Many bird species spend part of the year in Illinois and the rest of it somewhere else. Often birds spend the winter somewhere warmer. Why do you think they do that? What can’t they find in colder places in the winter? 

Two eastern phoebes perched facing in opposite directions.
Eastern phoebes. (Photo courtesy of Brenda Schultz)

As the weather starts to warm up, our migrators start to return. Look for these birds (and more!) to arrive in your neighborhood in March.  

Eastern phoebes 

Many people appreciate the lack of insect activity in winter. But many birds, like Eastern phoebes, eat insects for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They may also eat fruit or berries. If they stayed here in the winter they could starve, so they fly to warmer areas in the southern United States or Mexico, where insects still buzz around and juicy berries still hang. 


Words to know

Acrobatic: Involving spectacular gymnastic feats.

Brumate: A state of sluggishness, inactivity or torpor exhibited by reptiles in winter or periods of low temperature.

Flit: To move swiftly and lightly.

Iridescent: Showing luminous colors that change when seen from different angles.

Poufy: Puffed out.

Tousled: Untidy hair


Keep your eyes peeled for a bird about the size of a robin, but with a lighter, brownish-gray body. His white belly provides a bright contrast to his black beak, gray tail and darker head feathers. Sometimes the feathers on his head look a little poufy, like a tousled haircut.  

Three eastern phoebe hatchlings in their nest.
Eastern phoebe hatchlings in their nest. (Photo via Shutterstock)

You may find phoebes nesting in your neighborhood. Look for their nests near structures like buildings or bridges protected by an awning or ledge. Females build the nests from soft, cozy materials like leaves, moss, grass and even hair, then mix it with mud to hold it all together. Their nests are so well-built and protected that they can last for several years. A phoebe returned to a nest tucked in Plum Creek Nature Center’s eaves summer after summer for several years! 

They like to perch low in trees and on fences in open areas near a woodland edge. Does that describe a forest preserve or park near you? 

Did you find one? If the description matches a phoebe, but you’re still not sure, wait for him to introduce himself. His call sounds like his name, “fee-bee, fee-bee." Listen here. You can answer with your own name, but quietly so he doesn’t get startled and fly away.


Barn swallows 

Barn swallows also eat their fill of insects. They swoop low over meadows and fields, snatching insects right out of the sky using their incredible acrobatic flying skills.

This swooping, darting flight pattern can be confused with bats, but notice the time of day. Does the sun still shine brightly? Barn swallows swoop about. Has the sky begun to darken into night? Likely a bat flits by. You can also watch their wings for a bit for another hint. Bats must continuously flap their wings. Birds can alternate flapping and soaring with wings held wide.  

A barn swallow in flight.
A barn swallow. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Barn swallows grow to about the same size as eastern phoebes, but with different coloring. The blue-black feathers on their backs can take on an iridescent bright blue sheen in the sunlight. That blue contrasts with their orangish bellies and dark faces.  

Even if you can only see their silhouette and not their colors, you can probably still identify barn swallows. Their long tail feathers split like a fork, and their wings look pointy in flight. Combine those with their distinct flight pattern for a pretty confident ID. 

A female and male pair work together to build a nest of mud and straw. Their construction skills defy gravity! They can build a nest on the side of building or bridge with nothing supporting it the bottom. Instead, they cement it to the side with a thick layer of mud. Can you imagine living in a house built high on the side of a cliff? Look for barn swallow nests in the eaves of picnic shelters near open areas and prairies like at Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve.  

Four barn swallow hatchlings sitting in their nests with their mouths open.
Barn swallow hatchlings. (Photo courtesy of Joe Viola)

Maybe you’ll get lucky enough to see the four to six nestlings, or chicks, poking their heads out calling for food. You may also hear barn swallows calling to each other, or urging you to get away from their nests, with a “cheep, churee” Listen here.

Their migration to much warmer south and central American countries starts as early as July or August. Even though the weather stays warm longer than that here in Illinois, and the insects continue to swarm, barn swallows follow their instincts to start the long journey south while they still have plenty of time and food. 

Great blue herons 

Great blue herons grow much taller than eastern phoebes and barn swallows. At 3½ feet to 4½ feet tall, they may be closer to your size! These tall, grayish-blue birds can often be found hunting at the waters’ edge. Everything about them looks long – long bodies, long legs, necks that stretch long like an “S” or stay hunched tight and long beaks for fishing. 

A great blue heron with a frog in its mouth.
A great blue heron. (Photo courtesy of Darek Konopka)

Great blue herons will eat insects, but they mostly eat underwater animals. What do you think they grab underwater with those long beaks? Fish, frogs, crawfish, salamanders and turtles to name a few. 

Knowing what great blue herons eat, why do you think they migrate to spend winter in the southern United States and South America? Not only can bodies of water freeze as the temperatures drop, but many of the animals they eat brumate over the winter. Their body function slows to a hibernation-like state. They are alive, but inactive and unreachable underwater or underground.

Five great blue herons standing in rookery nests.
Great blue herons in a rookery nest. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Great blue herons return to Illinois to nest. Look for them throughout spring in tree colonies called rookeries. Visit Rock Run Rookery Preserve or Lake Renwick Heron Rookery Nature Preserve for viewing opportunities. Listen for calls of “roh, roh, roh” between mating pairs or “tik, tik, tik” from chicks. Listen here.


They communicate with more than chirps and calls, though. Pairs will send messages by chattering their bills together, making a clacking sound. Can you do that with your teeth and make a code with a friend or sibling? 

Would you choose to live here all year, or would you rather migrate and spend part of the year somewhere else? In which season would you move away? Where would you go? 

Look for signs of these migrators and more at your neighborhood preserves and parks. Pay attention in spring and fall to see if you notice any birds you haven't seen for a while. Maybe you spotted another migrator! 


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