21 Types Of SMALL Birds In Illinois (ID Guide With Photos)

Did you recently come across a small bird in the state of Illinois, and want to know what species it was?

Identifying small birds in the Prairie State is not as easy as it might seem, since there are many bird species in Illinois that are on the small side.

To help you identify the bird you saw, we’ll cover the most important small birds of Illinois in this article.

Types of small birds found in Illinois

What are the types of small birds in Illinois?

The 21 types of small birds commonly found in Illinois are:

  • Carolina Wren
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  • House Wren
  • American Goldfinch
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Palm Warbler
  • Gray Catbird
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • Tree Swallow
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Eastern Towhee
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Scarlet Tanager
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • House Finch
  • Northern Cardinal
  • House Sparrow
  • Yellow Warbler
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet
  • Brown Creeper

While many of these birds are found year-round in Illinois, others only occur in the state during the breeding season in summer.

Yet other species are winter visitors in Illinois, and some are vagrants that only rarely occur in the state (more on that below).

Now let’s dive into the details, and take a closer look at each of these bird species in order to get the full scoop:

Carolina Wren

Scientific name: Thryothorus ludovicianus

Photo of Carolina Wren

The Carolina Wren is a common little garden bird with chestnut brown upperparts and creamy white underparts. Wings and tails have dark brown barring.

Males and females look alike, as do young individuals. The Carolina Wren is a non-migratory species, and can be spotted all year round in the state of Illinois.

It is a familiar tiny bird, which can be found in backyards, scrubland, and forests. It feeds mostly on insects and other small invertebrates.

Black-capped Chickadee

Scientific name: Poecile atricapillus

Photo of Black-capped Chickadee

The Black-capped Chickadee is a widespread bird species in North America. Both sexes look similar, and have gray backs with buff underparts. 

Their most distinguishing feature is the black cap and the black throat, which contrasts with the bright white cheeks.

This chickadee is present year-round in Illinois, where it favors a variety of forest habitats as well as backyards.

These small chickadees are regular visitors at bird feeders, and also accept nestboxes.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Scientific name: Archilochus colubris

Photo of Ruby-throated Hummingbird

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the smallest bird in Illinois. Weighing just 0.1 ounces, it is a truly tiny bird when you compare it to other species.

The male has a black throat that reflects flashes of ruby red when it catches the sunlight.

Similar to other Hummingbirds, it can fly straight up, down, or backwards, and can also hover in mid air, with its wings generating a humming sound like a tiny generator. 

Hummingbirds are fascinating creatures that breathe up to 250 times per minute and have a heartbeat of over 1,200 times per minute. 

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is attracted to gardens and backyards that have tubular flowers that produce a lot of nectar.

In addition to flower nectar, it also feeds on insects. It is a long-distance migrant, and spends its winter in Central America.

House Wren

Scientific name: Troglodytes aedon

Photo of House Wren

The House Wren is a small songbird with a relatively long bill. Compared to other wrens, it has a long tail, which it likes to cock up.

At a distance, House Wrens resemble uniformly brown birds, but when viewed close up, you can discern subtle barring on their wings and tail.

In contrast to the Carolina Wren, which is a year-round resident in Illinois, the House Wren is a winter visitor in Illinois, where it winters from September through April.

American Goldfinch

Scientific name: Spinus tristis

Photo of American Goldfinch adult male

The American Goldfinch is an easily recognizable yellow bird of Illinois, due to its distinctive bright coloration.

Adult males have almost entirely bright yellow plumage, except for a black cap, black wings, and a black tail.

Females are not as brightly colored, but are more buff yellowish-brown with black wings. 

It is a year-round backyard bird in Illinois, and a regular visitor at bird feeders offering sunflower seeds. 

During the winter months, it forms flocks that forage together, feeding on thistles in weedy fields. 

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Scientific name: Polioptila caerulea

Photo of Blue-gray Gnatcather adult male

Except for its long tail, the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher looks a lot like a warbler.

The upperparts of adult males are blue-gray, while their underparts are a lighter gray. The black tail has white stripes at its margins. 

Adult females and immatures are grayish on top, and light gray underparts. The eye of both sexes has a white eyering.

The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher may be encountered as a breeding bird in the temperate regions of North America, predominantly from early May through August.

It is a partial migrant, with southeastern populations being year-round residents. Northern populations, however, spend the winter in the southern USA and Central America.

A great way to identify this small songbird is by its long tail that is often pointed upwards.

Palm Warbler

Scientific name: Setophaga palmarum

Photo of Palm Warbler

Both sexes of the Palm Warbler are quite similar to one another, with the exception that males tend to have a little more vibrant coloration than females.

The upperparts of adults are olive-brown and subtly striped, while the wings are darker overall with two light wingbars. Their underparts are mostly yellow with brown streaks.

These warblers are among the smallest birds in North America, and a great feature for identifying them is their yellow throat and yellow supercilium (eyebrow stripe).

The Palm Warbler breeds in the northern parts of North America, and passes through Illinois during migration in fall and spring. 

Gray Catbird

Scientific name: Dumetella carolinensis

Photo of Gray Catbird

The Gray Catbird is easily recognizable due to its long tail. Both sexes and juveniles look alike and have dark gray body coloration, a black cap and a rufous red undertail.

The Gray Catbird is a scarce breeding bird in Illinois, but its numbers increase during the cold season, due to large numbers of migratory catbirds that winter in the Prairie State.

They  like to forage for insects and berries on the ground, and can be found in forests and scrubland.

They are secretive small songbirds that are hard to observe.

Tufted Titmouse

Scientific name: Baeolophus bicolor

Photo of Tufted Titmouse

The Tufted Titmouse is a familiar and easily recognizable small songbird thanks to the distinctive crest on its head.

The sexes resemble each other, and have grayish-blue upperparts with a black forehead and a crest on the back of their head. The underparts are pale gray, but the flanks are tinged with buff orange.

This small songbird is a year-round resident throughout Illinois, and is readily observed by bird watchers, since it isn’t very shy. It is also a regular visitor at backyard feeders, and readily breeds in nestboxes.

It prefers deciduous forests, as well as parks and backyards, where it feeds on small invertebrates and seeds.

Tree Swallow

Scientific name: Tachycineta bicolor

Photo of Tree Swallow

The Tree Swallow is widespread in Illinois, and is most often found close to lakes, marshes, and ponds.

Adult Tree Swallows are greenish blue on top, and have buff white underparts. Their feathers are iridescent, and change color when viewed in direct sunlight. 

While adult females look similar to adult males, young individuals are more grayish brown with a white underside. 

This little swallow readily accepts suitable nesting boxes, which gives you an opportunity to attract this attractive blue-colored bird in Illinois to your backyard. 

It feeds exclusively on insects that it catches in the air, and as a strict insectivore it is a long distance migrant that only spends the summer in Illinois.

Tree Swallows winter around the Gulf of Mexico, as well as in Central America.

Downy Woodpecker

Scientific name: Picoides pubescens

Photo of Downy Woodpecker

The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker found in Illinois.

While males are black and white with a little red patch on their nape, females are entirely black and white.

The wings of both sexes are black with white bars, which look like spots when the wings are folded.

Downy Woodpeckers are non-migratory, and can be seen all year round throughout North America, except for the arid regions in southern states.

You can tell this woodpecker apart from the Hairy Woodpecker by its smaller size and short bill. 

While Downy Woodpeckers don’t migrate, they like to move around outside of the breeding season, in search of areas with plentiful food.

Their preferred habitat is deciduous or mixed forest, where they feed on insects and insect larvae found under the bark of trees. During winter they also eat berries and seeds.

Eastern Towhee

Scientific name: Pipilo erythrophthalmus 

Photo of Eastern Towhee adult male

Towhees got their name from the characteristic “Tow-hee” cry that both genders use.

While Towhees don’t belong to the blackbird family, male Eastern Towhees are largely black, with rusty-brown sides and a white underside

However, its back and head are completely black, and depending on your viewing angle, it can look like an entirely black Illinois bird

When the Eastern Towhee takes to the air, white comma-shaped wing patches become visible on the upper side of its wings.

Illinois is home to the red-eyed form of this species, which can be found year-round in the Prairie State.

Although the female incubates the eggs until they hatch, the male does the heavy lifting when it comes to feeding the young. 

The Eastern Towhee, similar to all other species of towhee, forages by making a comical backwards hopping motion with both feet at the same time.

It does this in order to displace leaves and expose the seeds and insects that are concealed under them.

You can readily attract these little songbirds to your feeder with black oil sunflower seeds.

Common Yellowthroat

Scientific name: Geothlypis trichas

Photo of Common Yellowthroat

The Common Yellowthroat is a brightly colored small wood warbler. Adult males have a bright yellow throat and chest, as well as a broad black mask that covers the forehead and cheeks.

The black face mask is bordered on top by a grayish white band, which transitions into the olive brown nape and back. Females are similar, but lack the black face mask.

The Common Yellowthroat is a summer visitor and breeding bird in Illinois. It migrates south to spend the winter in the southern USA and Central America.

It prefers shrubland and grassy habitats, and feeds on insects and other invertebrates.

Scarlet Tanager

Scientific name: Piranga olivacea

Photo of Scarlet Tanager

The Scarlet Tanager is a bright red bird with a tropical appearance, due to the bright scarlet plumage of the males, which contrasts with their coal-black wings and tail feathers.

But unlike the startling bright red color of the male, the female has a more drab olive yellow appearance. 

The Scarlet Tanager is a summer visitor to Illinois, and spends its winter in Central and South America.

This red bird loves warm temperatures, and thus arrives late in spring, and leaves early in fall. During spring and fall, Scarlet Tanagers from Canada can be seen passing through Illinois.

Both sexes sing a similar song in order to mark and defend their territory from other birds. 

Eastern Bluebird

Scientific name: Sialia sialis

Photo of Eastern Bluebird adult male

The Eastern Bluebird is a brightly colored and widespread breeding bird in Illinois.

The upperparts of adult male Eastern Bluebirds are a rich shade of admiral blue. Their blue coloration also extends to their wings, tail, and the back of their heads.

The partial orange collar of males creates the impression of having a cap on their head. Male bluebirds have a prominent orange chest, with shades of warm-toned rufous brown. 

The upperparts of adult females have a more grayish-brown color. However, females also have blue tail feathers and wing feathers, as well as a rufous-orange chest and flanks.

It is a migratory bird in the northern part of its range, but can be seen year-round in the southern part of the United States. Northern populations winter in Mexico.

The Eastern Bluebird nests in holes, and competes with House Sparrows and European Starlings for nesting sites. 

During their fall migration, they can be seen in flocks that like to feed on fruits and berries.

The population of Eastern Bluebirds underwent a dramatic decline at the end of last century, due to lack of nesting holes and competition with European Starlings.

But largely thanks to the efforts of numerous Illinois citizens providing nest boxes for Eastern Bluebirds, these beautiful birds are regularly observed breeding in the Prairie State.

House Finch

Scientific name: Haemorhous mexicanus

Photo of House Finch

The House Finch is one of the most widespread small birds in North America, and is usually found in settled areas, ranging from little towns to large metropolitan centers.

Adult male House Finches can be identified by the bright red feathers on the head and upper breast, although in some cases they are slightly more orange or yellowish in color.

The females lack any red coloration, and instead have grayish streaks on a brown background.

The House Finch was originally a western bird, and it wasn’t until the 1940s that it was discovered in New York and other places on the east coast of the US.

The eastern House Finch population began to grow in the 1950s and 60s, and by the year 2000, it had expanded so far west that it connected with the original western population.

The House Finch is entirely herbivorous, and feeds on seeds, buds, and fruits.

If you set up a bird feeder in your backyard, you can expect House Finches to be among the first birds to visit it.  

The House Finch is found in Illinois all year round, and while it is not a migratory bird, it does move to areas with more food outside of the breeding season.

Northern Cardinal

Scientific name: Cardinalis cardinalis

Photo of Northern Cardinal

As the state bird of no less than seven US states, the Northern Cardinal is one of the most familiar red birds in Illinois.

Male Northern Cardinals have a bright crimson red coloration on their head, chest, and belly, and slightly darker red on their back and wing feathers.

In addition, the face has a black mask extending from the bright red bill to the throat.

Female Northern Cardinals are not quite as colorful as males, and have a more buff-brown body color with some reddish tinges, although they also have a bright red bill. 

The Northern Cardinal is a backyard bird in Illinois, and can be seen year round in backyards, small forests, and parks.

During the winter months it doesn’t defend its territory, and sometimes gathers in flocks of up to 25 individuals that feed together. The Northern Cardinal is a regular visitor at bird feeders.

House Sparrow

Scientific name: Passer domesticus

Photo of House Sparrow adult male

The House Sparrow is a common urban songbird in Illinois.

Adult males have upperparts that are primarily chestnut brown with dark streaks. The wings are chestnut brown with a white wingbar.

A great characteristic to identify males is by their gray crown and rump. Females are more drab, and are mostly buff gray with dark streaks on their back.

The House Sparrow is not a native bird of Illinois, but was introduced by European settlers. 

However it has successfully colonized the entire North American continent, and is now an urban bird that is found in parks and backyards.

Yellow Warbler

Scientific name: Setophaga petechia

Photo of Yellow Warbler adult male

Also known as the American Yellow Warbler, this songbird lives up to its name.

Adult males have a brilliant yellow color, except for their wings, which are just slightly darker and have two pale wingbars.

They also have reddish stripes on the breast and the sides. Adult females are very similar to the males, but have less streaking and are thus more uniformly yellow.

This yellow bird is present as a breeding species in Illinois from April through August, and spends the rest of the year in Central America and South America.

It favors open habitat with low thickets and scrubland, which makes it easy to observe.

White-breasted Nuthatch

Scientific name: Sitta carolinensis

Photo of White-breasted Nuthatch

This is the largest Nuthatch species in North America, and is a common year-round resident in Illinois.

Adults have a grayish blue back and wings, as well as a white face, throat, and breast.

These birds favor deciduous or mixed forests, and are common visitors at tube feeders in Illinois offering sunflower seeds.

Outside of the breeding season White-breasted Nuthatches form small flocks with other species of songbirds, which rove around in Illinois and forage together.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Scientific name: Regulus satrapa

Photo of Golden-crowned Kinglet adult male

The Golden-crowned Kinglet is another tiny songbird. Adults have a grayish green back and dark wings with two light wing bars.

Their most distinguishing feature is the black cap with a bright orange stripe along the centerline.

And while females and immatures look similar to males, their crown stripe is yellow instead of orange.

The Golden-crowned Kinglet is a winter visitor throughout Illinois, and occurs in the state from October through March.

Outside of the breeding season, these little birds form mixed flocks with other songbirds that forage together.

Brown Creeper

Scientific name: Certhia americana

Photo of Brown Creeper

The Brown Creeper is hard to confuse with any other species of birds. It is a diminutive brown bird in Illinois with a down curved bill that can be seen climbing tree trunks like a little rodent.

While the upperparts are dark gray with brown streaks, the underparts are buff white. The sexes both look alike.

The Brown Creeper is a winter visitor in Illinois, and favors a wide variety of woodland habitats.

What are the small brown birds in Illinois?

The small brown birds found in Illinois backyards are most often wrens, which are tiny birds with a loud voice.

During the summer months, the most common wren species in Illinois is the House Wren.

But if you spot a wren during winter, this is likely to be a Carolina Wren, since these don’t migrate south (while House Wrens do).

In addition to wrens, female House Finches are also small birds that are brownish gray, and are often found in backyard gardens all over the Prairie State.

If you’re not sure which one of these birds you spotted while bird watching in Illinois, check out our detailed ID guides with photos above.

And if you enjoyed this article, check out our guide to the birds of prey in Illinois.