Blackbirds are plentiful throughout Illinois. It’s easy to recognize the flashy colors of a red-winged or yellow-headed blackbird, and large groups of European starlings are hard to miss when they flock together in a field or yard!
Depending on which type of bird watchers you talk to, this is either a good or bad thing.
Many bird watchers love spotting native birds in the icterid family, to which blackbirds belong because they can be colorful, active, and playful.
Other people are more critical, as blackbirds have a reputation for being aggressive birds and out-competing other birds for natural resources.
Spotting blackbirds in Illinois doesn’t take much effort, but recognizing different species can help you know whether you should attract, ignore, or deter them from your yard. After all, not every blackbird has black wings, and not every black bird is a blackbird.
There are about 10 blackbird species that are regularly found in Illinois, although others can be spotted on rare occasions.
If you have nuisance blackbird species, this list will help you identify them. If you’re a bird watcher who lives in or visits Illinois, these are some blackbirds that you might see in the state.
10 Blackbirds You’ll See in Illinois
- Agelaius phoeniceus
- Length: 22 – 24 cm (8.7 – 9.4 in)
- Weight: 64 g (2.3 oz)
- Wingspan: 31 – 40 cm (12 – 16 in)
Color pattern: The most recognizable feature of a Red-winged blackbird is the red and orange patch found at the top of a male’s wings. Aside from that splash of color, they are all black.
Female Red-winged blackbirds look like large, brown, and cream-colored sparrows. They also have a dark brown stripe, which starts at the backs of their eyes and runs to the backs of their heads.
Almost anyone can spot a Red-winged blackbird.
Their primary roosting preference is in deciduous trees, and they will completely take over shade trees in yards and parks, monopolizing the resources that other birds need.
These feathered friends are noticeable along roadways, in fields, and in neighborhoods. Sometimes you will even spot them divebombing and chasing away other birds—or even humans!
They sometimes get along with other birds, sharing space with other icterids like grackles and cowbirds.
- Sturnus vulgaris
- Length: 19 – 23 cm (7.5 – 9.1 in)
- Weight: 58 – 101 g (2.0 – 3.6 oz)
- Wingspan: 31 – 44 cm (12 – 17 in)
Color patterns: Starlings are dark brown or black, with iridescent feathers that are mottled with beige-brown spots. Unlike species with more differentiation between the sexes, male and female European starlings are similar in appearance.
As individuals, European starlings are not much of a problem. But when they gather by the hundreds or even thousands, they cause a lot of problems! In fact, starlings are often described as a pest or nuisance birds.
Starlings are unprotected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. After being introduced into North America in 1890, they have now spread throughout the continent and are plentiful in Kansas.
These are social birds who live in large groups for much of the year. During the breeding season, they will live independently to raise their young. They are tenacious and adaptable, often out-competing other birds in the area where they live.
Because they are a threat to native birds in Kansas, many people do what they can to deter European starlings from their properties.
- Molothrus ater
- Length: 16 – 22 cm (6.3 – 8.7 in)
- Weight: 30 – 60 g (1.1 – 2.1 oz)
- Wingspan: 36 cm (14 in)
Color patterns: Brown-headed cowbirds are quite small, especially in comparison to the other birds on this list. They have finch-shaped heads. Males are iridescent black, and females are dullish-grey. Both sexes have brown heads, which explains their name.
Even if you don’t know cowbirds by name, you may know about their unique evolutionary trait: they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests!
Instead of raising their own young, brown-headed cowbirds are nest parasites. They no longer need to build their own nests or raise their hatchlings, because they let birds of completely different species do it.
Very few of the brown-headed cowbirds’ eggs will survive long enough to hatch and be nurtured into adults. That’s part of why they lay so many eggs, sometimes up to 40 eggs in a single season. About 3% of those will make it to adulthood.
- Quiscalus quiscula
- Length: 28 – 34 cm (11 – 13 in)
- Weight: 74 – 142 g (2.6 – 5.0 oz)
- Wingspan: 36 – 46 cm (14 – 18 in)
Color pattern: The common grackle is recognized by its glossy, purple head and iridescent bronze feathers. Females lack the same level of sheen to their feathers.
Common grackles are large and imposing birds, which makes a large group of them quite intimidating! Common grackles are very noisy, often causing headaches for people who live near their gathering areas.
They are also frustrating to farmers, who lose massive amounts of feed corn every year to hungry grackles.
You may notice grackles participating in unusual behavior. “Anting” occurs when a grackle finds an active ants nest and lies down beside it. The ants swarm the bird and move throughout its feathers, secreting formic acid. This is known to reduce the bird’s parasitic load.
- Icterus galbula
- Length: 17 – 22 cm (6.7 – 8.7 in)
- Weight: 33.8 g (1.19 oz)
- Wingspan: 23 – 30 cm (9 – 12 in)
Color pattern: Female Baltimore orioles have yellow-orange and dark grey feathers, as well as two white wing bars.
Male Baltimore orioles are bright orange with black wings, heads, and beaks. Males have a white wing bar, too.
Named for the bold orange and black colors that match the crest of the Baltimore family, they are attracted to dark red, orange, and purple fruits, such as cherries, purple grapes, and mulberries.
When they eat these fruits, Baltimore orioles practice something called “gaping.” This involves stabbing their slender bills into the fruit, then opening their bills and swallowing the fruit’s interior juices.
- Icterus spurius
- Length: 5.9 – 7.1 in (15 – 18 cm)
- Weight: 0.6 – 1.0 oz (16 – 28 g)
- Wingspan: 9.8 in (25 cm)
Color pattern: Orchard orioles are reddish-chestnut in color, with a black head and throat. Females are yellowish-green, and they have no black on them at all. They also have white wing bars. You can differentiate juvenile males from females by looking for the black around their slender bills and throats.
As the smallest blackbirds in Illinois, Orchard orioles are not very easy to attract to your birdfeeders. That’s because Orchard orioles prefer to spend their time in the tops of trees, rather than gathering food from feeders.
Orchard orioles can be somewhat difficult to identify, because they look a lot like Baltimore orioles, especially to newer birders.
- Euphagus cyanocephalus
- Length: 20 – 25 cm (8 – 10.3 in)
- Weight: 63 g (2.2 oz)
- Wingspan: 39 cm (15.5 in)
Color patterns. Like many other blackbirds, male Brewer’s blackbirds are iridescent. They have blue heads, or sometimes they are purple-ish, depending on the lighting.
Brewer’s blackbirds’ bodies are more of a green color. Males have black, slender bills and black legs. Females are dull, brownish grey. They have darker wings and tails than the rest of their feathers.
These are resourceful birds who skillfully adapt to the changes to their environment that are caused by human activity. For example, they like to find their way to busy outdoor restaurants where they can eat many crumbs and scraps.
Their diet is mostly seeds, grains, insects, and anything else they find. They can be spotted in Illinois’s marshes and meadows, woodlands and wetlands, and in urban areas.
- Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus
- Length: 21 – 26 cm (8.3 – 10.2 in)
- Weight: 44 – 100 g (1.6 – 3.5 oz)
- Wingspan: 42 – 44 cm (16.5 – 17.3 in)
Color patterns: Male Yellow-headed blackbirds have a large yellow head and chest atop a dark black body. They have white wing bars at the bend in their wings.
Females also have yellow heads, but a bit duller than the bright, lemony color of the males. Both sexes have stout bodies, a yellow belly, long tail feathers, and slender, pointed bills.
These flashy blackbirds are a favorite at many birdfeeders in Illinois. Their scientific name comes from the Greek for yellow (xanthous) and head (cephalus): Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus.
Yellow-headed blackbirds’ songs are quite grating to most people. The Audubon Society calls it a “hoarse, harsh scraping.” These are definitely not songbirds! When yellow-headed blackbirds flock together in the thousands, these sounds can be a bit overpowering.
- Euphagus carolinus
- Length: 22 – 25 cm (8.5 – 9.8 in)
- Weight: 60 g (2.1 oz)
- Wingspan: 36 cm (14 in)
Color patterns: The appearance of a Rusty blackbird is dependent upon the season. In winter, males have rust-colored tips on their feathers, but in the summer, their feathers turn black and glossy. Female Rusty blackbirds have a grey-brown body.
Rusty blackbirds really enjoy being in and around the water and are social birds. They don’t breed in Illinois, but they can be seen during migration. Regrettably, Rusty blackbirds are now a threatened species.
Their name—Rusty blackbirds—likely come from their raspy notes, which sound like the creaking of a rusty hinge. They are loud birds!
- Euphagus carolinus
- Length: 16 – 18 cm (6.3 – 7.1 in)
- Weight: 1.0 – 2.0 oz (28 – 57 g)
- Wingspan: 10.6 inches (27 cm)
Color pattern: During the breeding season, male Bobolinks are mostly black, but their backs have a white wing bar. The backs of their neck are buff-colored.
During the rest of the year, males look like females: brown bodies with dark brown streaks down their backs.
Bobolinks are known for their amazing song and impressive migratory behaviors. Every year, a massive flock will travel 12,500 miles between their winter territory in South America and their summer territory in North America.
They are decreasing in population, but they are still plentiful in Illinois, especially during migration. They are social birds, often spotted in a massive flock in fields and grasslands.
How Should You Respond to Blackbirds In Your Yard?
The way you choose to respond to an individual or group of blackbirds in your yard is dependent upon so many factors.
Are they causing problems for your health or safety? Too many birds of any kind can leave massive amounts of waste behind. Are they outcompeting other birds in the area for natural resources, like food, water, and nesting grounds?
Illinois is home to so many delightful and fascinating birds, and you likely want to protect the diversity of birdlife in your yard.
If you find that you have aggressive birds who are backyard feeders and are causing problems for you or your local bird population, you have a responsibility to deter them humanely.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects most bird species, and you should be careful not to harm, injure, or kill protected birds.
Humane deterrents for these backyard feeders include noisemakers, plastic decoy animals, bird netting, and even helium balloons. Don’t forget to secure any balloons you use in your yard, because a loose balloon can be catastrophic for local animals.
If you are trying to avoid large gatherings of social birds, make your yard less hospitable by clearing away any attractive fruits, berries, birdfeed, and spilled livestock feed.
Whether you are delighted by blackbirds or trying to get them to stop swarming your backyard, we hope that you enjoy the stunning bird populations Illinois has to offer in its variety of habitats.