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11 Yellow Birds in Illinois

yellow birds in illinois
Prothonotary Warbler in Chicago, Illinois: Photo by Kevin Lin

Introduction

Yellow birds add a cheery splash of color to Illinois’ prairies, forests, and backyards. The Prairie State’s diverse ecosystems attract a wonderful diversity of avian jewels capped in golden feathers. In this article, we’ll explore some beautiful yellow birds that call Illinois home, top places to spot them, and how we can help conserve these special species.

Prothonotary Warbler – Protonotaria citrea

  • Features: The prothonotary warbler is a small bird with a stunning golden-yellow head and underparts, contrasted by its blue-gray wings. This warbler is easily identifiable thanks to its vivid coloration and distinctive loud, ringing song which it employs to establish territory and attract mates. These birds are often observed hopping along branches or fluttering between low shrubs, always on the move.
  • Where to Find Them: In Illinois, these bright warblers are summer residents, often found in swampy woodlands, river forests, and wetlands. They have a particular fondness for areas with a generous amount of standing water, where they nest in cavities often close to water. During their breeding season in Illinois, you might spot them in places like the Cache River State Natural Area, where the cypress-tupelo swamp provides a perfect habitat for them.
  • Fun Fact: These bright birds have a unique nesting preference. They are one of the few eastern warblers that nest in cavities, usually selecting abandoned woodpecker holes or natural tree cavities. In an effort to conserve the species and enhance their breeding success, many areas with significant prothonotary warbler populations have initiated nest box programs, providing safe and secure locations for these warblers to raise their young.

Blue-winged Warbler – Vermivora cyanoptera

  • Features: The blue-winged warbler is a small and vibrantly colored bird. It exhibits a yellow body which stands in stark contrast to its blue-gray wings. The males have a distinctive black line that runs through their eyes, adding to their bold appearance. Their charming features are complemented by a series of musical notes, a song that is high-pitched and buzz-like, often written as “bee-bzz”.
  • Where to Find Them: In Illinois, blue-winged warblers are usually found in shrubby areas, open woodlands, and forest edges. They have a particular affinity for areas with a dense understory where they can forage in secrecy. They are mainly seen during the breeding season, which spans from late spring to early summer, post which they migrate to Central America for the winter.
  • Fun Fact: The blue-winged warbler has a close relative, the Golden-winged Warbler, with whom it shares a range and sometimes interbreeds, producing hybrids known as “Brewster’s” and “Lawrence’s” warblers. 

Hooded Warbler – Setophaga citrina

  • Features: The hooded warbler is a striking bird that catches the eye with its vibrant plumage. The male has a yellow face and underparts contrasted by a deep black hood and throat, creating a distinctive and dramatic appearance. The female, on the other hand, is slightly more subdued, with olive-green upperparts and a bright yellow face and underparts, usually with a softer, more diluted hood.
  • Where to Find Them: In Illinois, these songbirds predominantly reside in mature deciduous forests with a dense understory, where they can often be found foraging in the lower levels of the vegetation. During the breeding season, they are particularly fond of areas with a thick cover of shrubs and small trees, which provide ample opportunities for nesting and foraging.
  • Fun Fact: These birds are known to sometimes “moonwalk” as a part of their courtship display, moving backwards while singing to entice females. The kings of pop.

Common Yellowthroat – Geothlypis trichas

  • Features: The common yellowthroat is a small and distinctive warbler known for its masked appearance. Males are easily recognizable by their bright yellow throat and chest, olive upperparts, and a prominent black mask that stretches across their eyes and forehead, bordered by a white band at the top. Females lack the black mask, instead featuring a plain, olive-brown face with a subtle eye ring and the same bright yellow throat and chest. These small birds have a cheerful song that is often heard in wetlands and grassy areas.
  • Where to Find Them: In Illinois, you can find these little warblers inhabiting wet, dense vegetative areas such as marshes, wetlands, and riverside thickets. They are primarily found in lowland areas and prefer nesting close to the ground in shrubby, grassy habitats. During the breeding season, which spans from late spring to early summer, they are quite widespread in Illinois.
  • Fun Fact: The common yellowthroat is well adapted to its watery habitats. Despite being a warbler, it exhibits behaviors akin to marsh birds, and it is known to skulk in the undergrowth, often making it more heard than seen. 

American Yellow Warbler – Setophaga petechia

  • Features: The American yellow warbler is a bright yellow bird; the males often feature rusty-red streaks on their breast, adding a splash of contrast to their predominantly yellow bodies. 
  • Where to Find Them: In Illinois, American yellow warblers can often be found in marshes, woods, and gardens, especially near water bodies. During the breeding season, they prefer areas with a dense growth of shrubs and small trees, where they build their nests and raise their young. They are often seen flitting about in the foliage, actively seeking insects to feed on.
  • Fun Fact: The American yellow warbler is quite innovative when it comes to protecting its nest from parasitic birds like the brown-headed cowbird. If a cowbird lays its egg in the warbler’s nest, the warbler might build a new layer over the top, effectively “burying” the intruder’s egg and preventing it from hatching. This kind of nesting “renovation” can sometimes result in nests with multiple layers, evidencing repeated parasitism attempts.

Pine Warbler – Setophaga pinus

  • Features: Pine warblers are relatively plain but attractive birds predominantly adorned with olive-green plumage which is more vibrant and yellowish on the undersides. The males have a more pronounced brightness to their feathers, while the females and young are slightly duller. Their relatively plain face is punctuated with distinctive dark eyes, lending them a keen and observant appearance. These warblers have a sweet, trilling song that is characteristic of their presence in pine-dominated areas.
  • Where to Find Them: In Illinois, you can typically find pine warblers making their home in, surprise, surprise, pine forests. They have a preference for pine trees for nesting and foraging. They often dwell high up in the trees, scouring the pine needles for insects and other food sources.
  • Fun Fact: Pine warblers have a more varied diet compared to many other warblers. Apart from their insectivorous diet, they have been known to feed on seeds and fruits, especially in the winter months. Their fondness for suet and fruits often brings them to bird feeders.

Prairie Warbler – Setophaga discolor

  • Features: The prairie warbler is a small and vibrant bird, featuring a yellow underpart adorned with distinctive black streaks. Its upperparts are olive-green, and it has a conspicuous facial pattern with an olive crown and a black line through the eyes. The males often exhibit brighter colors compared to the females. These birds are known for their distinctive tail-wagging behavior and a sweet, buzzing song that graces the habitats they reside in.
  • Where to Find Them: In Illinois, prairie warblers can primarily be found in scrubby fields, young forests, and areas undergoing regrowth after logging or fires, as they prefer shrubby and early-successional habitats. These habitats allow them to find their preferred nesting spots low to the ground, nestled in thickets or small trees.
  • Fun Fact: Despite their name, prairie warblers are not typically found in prairie landscapes. Their name is believed to come from the early settlers who observed them in areas cleared for farmland, which were commonly referred to as “prairies” at the time. 

Yellow-throated Vireo – Vireo flavifrons

  • Features: The yellow-throated vireo is distinguishable by its vibrant yellow throat and breast, contrasted by its olive-green upperparts and white belly. Their heads feature a striking pattern with bold, white “spectacles” surrounding a dark eye, set against a gray to blue-gray crown. These birds possess stout bodies with a relatively straight bill, which is adept for gleaning insects from foliage.
  • Where to Find Them: In Illinois, you can commonly find these birds in deciduous woodlands and mixed forests, particularly in areas with a substantial canopy and understory foliage. They tend to favor mature, well-wooded habitats where they can forage high in the trees, although they might sometimes be spotted in shrubs and lower vegetation.
  • Fun Fact: The yellow-throated vireo is known for its persistent song that sounds like a repetitive phrase of cheerful and clear notes, which some describe as a song that seems like the bird is leisurely questioning and answering itself. This melody, often heard during the breeding season, can carry for a considerable distance, making it easier to hear them before seeing them, as they forage high in the forest canopy. 

Henslow’s Sparrow – Ammodramus henslowii

  • Features: The Henslow’s sparrow is a petite bird known for its olive-brown hue mixed with subtle streaks of chestnut and greenish shades on its upperparts. Its chest and belly exhibit a lighter, almost buff coloration, just yellow-adjacent-enough to include it in this list. This sparrow is distinguished by a flat-headed profile, a short tail, and a fairly small bill. Despite its somewhat plain appearance, bird enthusiasts adore it for its distinct and simple song, a quiet, hissing “tsi-lick.”
  • Where to Find Them: In Illinois, Henslow’s sparrows are generally found in grasslands, where they favor areas with tall, dense grass and a sprinkling of shrubs. They are often spotted in prairies and meadows that undergo regular controlled burns, which help maintain their preferred habitat conditions. Nature preserves and restoration areas across the state, including Nachusa Grasslands and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, serve as excellent spots to potentially observe these elusive birds.
  • Fun Fact: The Henslow’s sparrow has experienced a significant decline in numbers due to the loss of its preferred grassland habitats. This has led to it being classified as a “Species of Greatest Conservation Need” in several states, including Illinois. Conservation efforts are ongoing to restore and protect the crucial habitats this bird relies on, aiming to curb the decline and foster a resurgence in its population. It’s a bird that thrives in the tallgrass prairie, a once vast ecosystem that has become increasingly rare in the United States.

American Goldfinch – Spinus tristis

  • Features: The American goldfinch, also known as the eastern goldfinch, is a small songbird that undergoes a notable seasonal plumage change. In the summer, males boast a brilliant yellow body complemented by black wings and a black forehead, while females exhibit a more subdued, olive-yellow coloration. During the winter, both sexes have a more understated brownish plumage. This bird has a delicate, conical beak adapted for seed eating, primarily dining on dandelions, sunflowers, and other seeds.
  • Where to Find Them: In Illinois, American goldfinches are commonly found in a variety of habitats including gardens, meadows, open woods, and fields. They are partial to areas with abundant weed plants, as these areas provide a rich source of seeds, which constitute a significant portion of their diet. These birds can be spotted all year round in Illinois, often visiting bird feeders during the colder months.
  • Fun Fact: Despite being renowned for their flying capabilities, American goldfinches are also proficient walkers. They walk with a distinct waddle. Penguins don’t have the monopoly on that particular gait.

Eastern Meadowlark – Sturnella magna

  • Features: The eastern meadowlark, easily recognizable by its bright yellow chest adorned with a distinctive black “V”, offers a striking display of colors. Its back is primarily streaked brown, helping it blend in with its natural grassy habitats. It has a rounded body with strong legs that are adept for walking on the ground, and a relatively long, pointed bill which assists in foraging. The song of the eastern meadowlark, characterized as a clear, whistled melody, often serves as a herald of spring in many regions.
  • Where to Find Them: In Illinois, eastern meadowlarks are most commonly found in open grasslands, fields, prairies, and farmlands. These birds prefer areas with tall grasses that allow them to both forage for insects and seeds, and construct ground nests hidden amongst the vegetation.
  • Fun Fact: Despite their name and strikingly similar appearance to various meadowlark species, eastern meadowlarks are actually members of the blackbird family. These birds have an excellent sense of hearing, thanks to a complex inner ear structure. 

Threats and Conservation

Habitat loss, collisions with buildings, climate change, and brood parasitism threaten many yellow bird species. Providing natural food sources, keeping cats indoors, avoiding pesticides, and supporting prairie and forest conservation can give them a brighter future.

Conclusion

The stunning diversity and sheer beauty of yellow birds seen across Illinois represent a natural heritage worth sustaining. From ethereal spring warblers passing through on migration to loquacious goldfinches nesting in your backyard, these species make the Land of Lincoln more vibrant. Conserving their habitats will help Illinois’ yellow birds continue dazzling us for generations.