Skip to Content

10 Red Birds in Illinois

red birds in illinois
Northern Cardinal in Cook, Illinois: Photo by Matthew Dolkart

Introduction

A flash of crimson catching the light – a male Summer Tanager feeding high in an oak tree. The cascade of a Scarlet Tanager’s song drifting from the forest canopy. The staccato drumroll of a Pileated Woodpecker resonating through the woods. From vivid woodpeckers to tanagers and finches, Illinois provides essential habitat for a remarkable diversity of birds exhibiting rich ruby, cardinal and vermilion plumage. Let’s explore some of the most eye-catching red birds finding homes in Illinois.

Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)

  • Features: This medium-sized woodpecker is unmistakable with its entirely bright red head, neck and upper breast. The body is mainly black with large white patches on the wings and lower belly. The back shows white barring. Its melodic call sounds like “queeah”. 
  • Locations: Found year-round in open woodlands, parks and oak groves across Illinois. It excavates nest cavities in dead trees. Populations have declined up to 2% annually in recent decades.
  • Fun Fact: Adept at flycatching insects in midair. Stores seeds and nuts in bark crevices. Fiercely protective, chasing off other woodpeckers and nest competitors.

Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus

  • Features: One of the largest woodpeckers in North America at 16-19 inches long with a wingspan over 2 feet. Mostly glossy black with vivid red crest on males. The face has bold white stripes, red mustache and yellow eye. Its loud call is a ringing, accelerating series of knocks. 
  • Locations: Found year-round in mature forest across Illinois. Drills distinctive rectangular excavations in dead trees for nesting and roosting. 
  • Fun Fact: Feeds heavily on carpenter ants and wood-boring beetle larvae. Uses its long sticky tongue to extract prey deep inside trees. Requires large tracts of unbroken forest.

Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis)

  • Features: A small songbird with blue-gray upperparts and cinnamon underparts. The face is white with a black cap and stripe through the eye. It has a short dagger-like bill. Its nasal call sounds like “yank-yank.”
  • Locations: Found year-round across northern Illinois in coniferous and mixed forests. Irruptive in winter, with numbers fluctuating annually. 
  • Fun Fact: Forages actively along branches and tree trunks for insects and seeds. Regularly visits bird feeders. The nest is in an old woodpecker cavity. 

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

  • Features: Familiar medium-sized thrush with gray upperparts, black head, bright orange-red breast and white eye crescents. The markings on the head and wings can be used to identify individuals. Its song is a string of mellow whistled phrases.
  • Locations: Abundant year-round across Illinois in lawns, fields and woodlands. Nests commonly on human structures as well as trees. 
  • Fun Fact: Hunts visually, running across grass looking for earthworms and other invertebrates. Will defend nests aggressively, dive-bombing intruders. 

House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

  • Features: Small brown and streaky finch with bright red forehead, breast and eyebrow. Males have more extensive red coloring. Females are plain gray-brown. Gregarious at feeders with a lively warbling song. 
  • Locations: Introduced exotic now found year-round across Illinois frequenting backyards, parks and urban areas. Originally a western species.
  • Fun Fact: Feeds on seeds, buds, fruits and nectar. The male feeds the incubating female as part of courtship. Nests are woven from vegetation and fibers.

Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus

  • Features: Warm raspberry-red head and breast with brown back streaked white. Conical bill for crushing seeds. White belly and wing bars. Female is gray-brown. Dainty high-pitched call note. 
  • Locations: Uncommon winter visitor across Illinois coming south from breeding areas farther north. Summers in coniferous forests across Canada. 
  • Fun Fact: Breeds later than other finches. The female builds a neat nest high in conifers. Warm red plumage pigment comes from carotenoids in diet.

Common Redpoll (Acanthis flammea)

  • Features: Small lively finch with red cap, black chin, and fluffy streaked plumage. Shows yellowish beside bill. Tiny notched bill for eating seeds. Forms enormous roaming winter flocks.
  • Locations: Irregular winter visitor in northern Illinois coming south in unpredictable influxes during food shortages farther north. Breeds in Arctic and subarctic regions.
  • Fun Fact: Flocks constantly chatter and twitter while feeding. Young redpolls hatch ready to leave the nest. Nest is built low in shrubs and conifers. 

Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra)

  • Features: Medium songbird with entirely bright crimson red body and darker reddish-brown wings and tail. The stout pointed bill is gray. Song is a hoarse, buzzy series of check and chack notes. 
  • Locations: Found in summer across Illinois in mature upland deciduous forests. Winters in South America. 
  • Fun Fact: The male and redder female share duties building a nest high in the forest canopy. Eats bees, wasps and other flying insects caught on the wing.

Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea)

  • Features: Slightly smaller than the summer tanager. Male is brilliant scarlet red with darker wings and tail. Female is dull yellow-olive overall with olive-gray wings. Song starts with chick burrs then rises with buzzy notes.
  • Locations: Nests in mature deciduous and mixed coniferous forests in northern Illinois. Winters in South America. 
  • Fun Fact: The male’s vibrant plumage contrasts against the green forest canopy. The female builds a sturdy cup nest alone on a horizontal branch high in a tree. 

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

  • Features: One of the most recognized backyard birds. The male is vivid red overall with a pointed crest and red bill. The female has buffy brown plumage with red accents only in wings, tail and crest.
  • Locations: Year-round resident across Illinois. Found everywhere from deep forests to marsh edges and backyard feeders. 
  • Fun Fact: Bright red color signals dominance and fitness. Mated pairs remain closely bonded year-round. The female builds a sturdy twig cup nest in dense shrubbery.

Threats and Conservation

Habitat loss threatens many of Illinois’ forest specialists like the tanagers, nuthatch and Pileated Woodpecker which require large intact woodlands. Backyard species like finches benefit from native plantings and bird feeders. Cats kill billions of birds annually – keeping them indoors protects wildlife. Reduced pesticide usage provides more insect prey.

Citizen Science

Illinois birders contribute to knowledge and conservation:

  • eBird sightings provide data on distribution, abundance, movements and declines. Photos document rare species. 
  • Nest box programs gather breeding data on cavity nesters like woodpeckers and track reproductive success.
  • Feeder surveys help monitor winter movements and long-term trends in common visitors like finches.
  • Christmas Bird Counts document overwintering species abundance and shifts.
  • Woodpecker nest hole monitoring provides tree cavity availability data to inform forestry management. 

Conclusion 

Whether delighted by a cardinal visiting your feeder, glimpsing a tanager passing through the forest, or hearing the knock of a mighty pileated woodpecker, observing Illinois’ remarkable red birds is a treat. Conservation of forests and backyards alike will help their populations thrive while providing enjoyment for years to come.