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Natural Awakenings Chicago

Songbirds: Add Local Color in May

Apr 25, 2019 04:48PM ● By Sheryl DeVore

Photo by Sheryl DeVore

In May, Chicago region backyards and nature preserves sparkle with the songs and colorful plumage of migratory birds. Some of them have traveled thousands of miles from their winter homes in Central and South America on their way to their northerly breeding grounds.

        Birds such as the rose-breasted grosbeak and the indigo bunting, flashing brilliant blue when the sun catches its feathers, may even spend a few days in urban and suburban backyards in spring. Wherever food and cover are available to help them on their long journeys, they’ll stop to rest and feed. Some nest in the region, while others continue flying farther north to find the perfect spot to raise a family.

        To see a rose-breasted grosbeak perched on a redbud tree in northern Illinois in May is remarkable, considering this bird, weighing about one-and-a-half ounces, may have flown at least 2,700 miles from Colombia to get here.

        Migratory birds face many natural and manmade perils, including storms, exhaustion, communication towers, glass buildings and electric wires. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates at least 400 million migratory birds perish annually from manmade causes. Cats let outdoors, as well as feral cats, also kill millions of birds annually.

        Migration, according to researchers, has evolved over tens or even hundreds of thousands of years. Scientists believe some bird species learned they could find more food such as insects by heading farther south in fall after each succeeding period of glaciation and retreat. Birds such as cardinals and woodpeckers in the yard can find food and adequate habitat and other conditions in Illinois in winter, and so do not migrate.

        At least 350 species of North American birds are long-distance migrants, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Four of them that are fairly easy to find in May, even in yards, include rose-breasted grosbeak, scarlet tanager, indigo bunting and Baltimore oriole.


Rose-breasted grosbeak
(Pheucticus ludovicianus)

About eight inches long, the rose-breasted grosbeak mostly spends winters in Central and northern South America. Many fly across the Gulf of Mexico in one night, heading to breed across much of Canada and the eastern U.S., including northern Illinois. The male has a black head and black back, with white wing bars and a white belly, washed with a heart-shaped rosy hue. Females are streaked with brown and have a distinctive white eyebrow stripe. Both have large, conical-shaped bills. Rose-breasted grosbeaks will visit feeders with sunflower seeds during migration, and it’s not unusual to see several males and females in one area during migration. Listen for their melancholy, robin-like songs.


Baltimore oriole
(Icterus galbula)

The eight-and-a-half-inch-long Baltimore oriole spends winter in southern Florida, the Caribbean, Central America and northernmost South America. They breed throughout much of the eastern U.S. and into Canada. The male has a black head and back, contrasting with orange undersides and white wing bars. The female is more subdued, with yellowish back and underside. Both have slender, pointed, gray beaks, compared with the grosbeaks, as well as blue-gray feet and legs.

        Baltimore orioles, along with other birds such as gray catbirds, are attracted to orange slices, but especially grape jelly offered in feeders. Lucky observers may spot an oriole’s hanging, pendular nest about 20 feet high or more in a cottonwood tree. In spring, listen for a whistled, two-to-five syllable song and look for a bright, black and orange bird near the top of a tree.


Indigo bunting
(Passerina cyanea)

About five-and-a-half inches long and weighing just half an ounce, the indigo bunting spends winters in southern Florida, Central America and northern South America. The male, in the right light, has a brilliant, indigo plumage with black lores (the region between the eyes and nostrils) and wings, contrasted by a silvery-colored bill. The female is mostly dull brown, with a bluish tail. Indigo buntings sing their sweet, musical songs, given in couplets, from atop a tree or shrub or while perched along a utility line. They sometimes visit sunflower feeders during migration, but also feed on dandelion seeds. Indigo buntings nest in shrubby areas, especially along a forested edge throughout Illinois.

        Look for an all-blue bird smaller than a robin. Blue jays are larger, with blue and white plumage and a crest. Eastern bluebirds are somewhat larger and a lighter shade of blue, with reddish-orange breasts.


Scarlet tanager
(Piranga olivacea)

The six-and-a-half-inch-long scarlet tanager spends winters in South America as far south as Bolivia, and breeds throughout eastern North America. It is not as commonly seen in yard settings as the grosbeak and oriole, but a few will stop in a neighborhood for a day or two before retreating to woodlands, where they nest high in the trees. Males have a scarlet body with bold black wings. Females are more difficult to find; they are olive on top, with a slight yellowish belly and grayish-brown wings.

        Listen for a distinct, short, buzzy song that some say sounds like a hoarse robin, as well as “chick-burr” call notes. Then look high for a bright red bird with black wings  to separate it from the more common northern cardinal. Scarlet tanagers sometimes visit grape jelly feeders in spring, as well, along with the orioles and catbirds.

Sheryl DeVore is the author of Birds of Illinois and Birding Illinois. She served as editor of Meadowlark: A Journal of Illinois Birds for 25 years and continues to write articles about birds and nature for national and regional publications. She can be reached at [email protected].


Celebrate Migratory Bird Day

World Migratory Bird Day is held on different days, depending on the location, but it’s typically celebrated in the Chicago region in mid-spring. Here are three free celebrations for all ages with no registration required.


May 11, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.,
World Migratory Bird Day,
Sagawau Environmental
Learning Center,

12545 W. 11th St., Lemont.
Litter clean up and bird hikes.


May 11, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.,
Crabtree Nature Center,

3 Stover Rd., Barrington Hills.
Bird walks and migratory bird
obstacle course.


May 18, 9 to 11:30 a.m.,
LaBagh Woods,

5400 N. Cicero Ave., Chicago.
Bird banding, bird walks and crafts. 708-386-4042


For more information,visit