29 Types Of WATER BIRDS in Illinois (ID Guide With Photos)
Did you recently spot a water bird in Illinois? In that case you’ll probably want to know what species you saw.
Identifying the water bird species of Illinois is not as easy as you might think, since there are many different types of aquatic birds that live in the Prairie State.
To help you identify the bird you saw, we’ll cover the common water birds of Illinois in this article.
What types of water birds are found in Illinois?
There are 29 types of water birds commonly found in Illinois, which are described in full detail below.
Scientific name: Anas platyrhynchos
Mallards are the most common type of duck in Illinois, and are the most common ducks in the whole of North America for that matter.
These ducks are extremely well adapted to man made habitats, and are often found on ponds and lakes in suburban parks.
Male Mallards can be recognized by their glossy green head and bright yellow beak, while females are uniformly mottled brown
Scientific name: Anas acuta
The Northern Pintail is relatively easy to identify by its extremely long, pointed tail. It is an overall slender duck with a long neck.
Male Northern Pintails have a predominantly light grey body and a dark brown head with a characteristic white stripe flowing down its neck.
They are summer birds in Illinois, where they inhabit a wide range of water habitats including lakes, ponds and marshes.
Scientific name: Anas crecca
The Green-winged Teal is one of the smallest ducks in North America, and males can be recognized by their chestnut brown head with a broad green stripe that extends from the eye down the neck.
While females are harder to identify than males, both sexes have a bright green wing patch that becomes visible when they take to the wing.
The Green-winged Teal is a summer visitor and breeding bird in Illinois, where it frequents shallow lakes and other wetlands.
Scientific name: Mareca americana
American Wigeons are visitors in the state of Illinois during migration in fall and spring.
Males can be recognized by their dark green eyepatch and white crown, while females are more inconspicuous and largely brownish gray.
They forage on ponds, lakes, marshes and harvested fields. However, they tend to be very wary, and you’ll need a good spotting scope to observe them from a distance.
Scientific name: Bucephala albeola
These small black-and-white diving ducks have a large head, and the male has a characteristic large white patch contrasting with a glossy purplish green face.
Females and juvenile birds, on the other hand, are largely gray and white, with a brown head that has a white cheek patch.
Buffleheads don’t breed in Illinois, but they regularly winter in the state from November through March.
Scientific name: Aythya valisineria
The Canvasback is a type of diving duck that feeds by eating tubers and plants from the bottom of ponds and lakes.
The male is easily recognized due to its dark chestnut head with red eyes, light gray body, black chest, and black tail.
Females look similar, but are more muted in their colors. These ducks don’t breed in Illinois, but are regularly observed during migration in fall and spring.
Scientific name: Spatula clypeata
The male Northern Shoveler is one of the most colorful waterfowl found in North America. It has a white chest, green head, chestnut flanks, and dark wings with a light blue patch.
Both sexes are also easily recognized by their oversized, flattened bill, which they use to filter small aquatic invertebrates and plant seeds out of the water.
Northern Shovelers pass through Illinois during thor fall and spring migration.
Scientific name: Spatula discors
Adult male Blue-winged Teals have a powdery blue forewing, as well as a dark green rear margin of the wing. This coloration is most clearly seen in flight.
These small ducks prefer marshland and ponds, and can be seen in saltwater and brackish water habitats outside of the breeding season.
They are regular breeding birds in Illinois, but migrate to the southern United States and Caribbean to spend the winter.
Scientific name: Aix sponsa
The Wood Duck is another stunningly colored duck species that breeds in Illinois and is a year-round resident in the southern parts of the Prairie State.
Wood Ducks live in wetlands that are adjacent to woodland habitats, as they nest in tree holes.
They also accept nest boxes, which can be used to attract them to areas lacking suitable nest holes.
Scientific name: Anser caerulescens
Similar to Trumpeter Swans, Snow Geese are winter visitors in Illinois, but the number of wintering Snow Geese has rapidly increased in recent years.
Snow Geese are regularly observed in Illinois during their fall migration, when they make a stopover to feed on harvested agricultural fields.
Scientific name: Branta canadensis
The Canada Goose is one of the most easily recognizable aquatic birds, due to its white cheeks that contrast with its jet black neck and head.
They are breeding birds in Canada and northern States, and fly south every fall in large V formations that herald the start of the cold season.
Canada Geese are year-round residents in southern Illinois, and summer breeding birds in northern parts of the state.
Great Blue Heron
Scientific name: Ardea herodias
The Great Blue Heron is one of the most common herons found in the Prairie State, where it can be seen year round.
With a wingspan of up to 6 feet, this heron is one of Illinois’s big birds. It is almost entirely blue gray, except for a white throat and eye stripe, as well as dark gray wing feathers.
Great Blue Herons can be found in many wetland habitats. You can find them in freshwater marshes, flooded fields, swamps, and lake shorelines.
Scientific name: Ardea alba
The Great Egret is a rare heron species in Illinois, but outside of the state it has a range that spans nearly the whole planet. It is largely white, except for its long, black legs and yellow beak.
This heron lives in both fresh and saltwater habitats, and often nests in large colonies on the shores of marshes, lakes, and rivers.
Great Egrets forage in any type of shallow water bodies, including ponds, lakes, rivers, as well as rice fields and other flooded areas.
Scientific name: Butorides virescens
The Green Heron is a relatively common water bird species in Illinois. It’s a medium-sized heron with an olive-green body and black wings.
These herons tend to live near water, so they’re often seen around lakes, rivers, ponds, or even swimming pools.
They eat fish, frogs, snails, small reptiles, amphibians, and crustaceans. They nest in trees or shrubs but sometimes build their nests on islands.
Scientific name: Bubulcus ibis
Smaller than Great Egrets, Cattle Egrets have shorter necks and are mostly white with streaks of brownish orange on the head, throat, and back.
The Cattle Egret is a relatively new species in the New World that originated in Europe and Africa.
These water birds are an invasive species in Illinois
Nobody knows how these herons crossed the Atlantic, but they were first discovered breeding in Brazil, and later in Illinois, where these birds first appeared in the 1960s and 70s.
They inhabit a wide range of wetland ecosystems, ranging from cattle pastures to freshwater ponds, swamps, and lakes.
Scientific name: Egretta thula
The Snowy Egret is another bird with extensive white plumage that has become an increasingly common bird across Illinois.
This bird is found in practically all types of wetland environments, from small ponds to lake shorelines and everything in between.
Snowy Egrets feed on fish, crabs, snails, amphibians, and crayfish, which they find in shallow water.
These herons either remain completely still and wait for prey to approach, or they stir up the water with their feet to flush out prey to the surface of the water.
Black-crowned Night Heron
Scientific name: Nycticorax nycticorax
The Black-crowned Night-Heron is true to its name, and is most active at dusk and during the night, when it forages for frogs and small fish in Illinois wetlands.
These night-herons are common breeding birds and year-round residents in Illinois, though they can be hard to spot during the day, unless you find their daytime hiding spots.
Another great distinguishing feature of these night birds of Illinois is their loud squawking sounds, which they utter at dusk when they fly out from their roost.
Scientific name: Botaurus lentiginosus
American Bitterns are small herons that live in marshes and swamps, and are extremely well camouflaged to blend in with aquatic vegetation.
They can blend in with the water plants surrounding them thanks to their mottled brown patterning, as well as the way they hold their heads pointed upwards while remaining still amid the reeds.
American Bitterns eat a wide variety of aquatic organisms, including fish, crabs, insects, frogs, and small rodents.
Scientific name: Ixobrychus exilis
The Least Bittern is hard to spot, since it usually remains hidden in dense reed beds. The best way to identify one of these herons is by its coo-coo-coo call.
The best places to see these herons are marshes and wetlands with dense vegetation, where they can be observed hunting at the water’s edge.
Least Bitterns feed on fish, amphibians, molluscs, insects, and even rodents.
They forage by grasping individual reeds with their talons while waiting for small aquatic animals to pass by in the water underneath them.
Scientific name: Antigone canadensis
Adult Sandhill Cranes have pale gray body plumage, as well as a red crown and forehead, which contrasts with a buff white cheek.
These large birds are up to 4.5 feet tall, which makes these Illinois birds with long legs the tallest in the state.
Sandhill Cranes are regular breeding birds throughout Illinois, and form large flocks outside of the breeding season, and migrate to southern parts of the USA and Mexico to spend the winter.
Scientific name: Mergus merganser
The Common Merganser is a regular breeding bird at Illinois rivers and streams, and nests in hollow trees along waterways.
The male is easily recognizable by its white body and underside, which contrasts with a dark blackish green head and back, as well as a long, dark red bill.
Females are light gray with a cinnamon brown heady and a short crest. These diving birds feed on fish that they skillfully catch underwater with their long, serrated beaks.
Scientific name: Lophodytes cucullatus
The Hooded Merganser is a small merganser with a large head. They breed throughout the eastern United States, as well as the Pacific Northwest.
Males can be recognized by their black and white crest, as well as a black and white body with chestnut brown flanks.
These mergansers are year-round residents in Illinois, where they can be encountered on small lakes, rivers, and other aquatic habitats. They forage by diving for small fish and aquatic invertebrates.
Scientific name: Podilymbus podiceps
This small water bird in Illinois is easily overlooked, due to its small size and inconspicuous brown coloration.
Pied-billed Grebes are expert divers that hunt fish and other small underwater animals, including small crayfish and insect larvae.
These small waterbirds are widespread throughout Illinois, where they can be encountered during the summer months.
Scientific name: Gavia immer
If you spotted a black waterbird with white dots, it is most likely the Common Loon (also known as the Great Northern Diver).
These large water birds are non-breeding summer visitors in Illinois, and fly south in fall to spend the cold months along the coastline of the southern United States.
The common loon is a fantastic diver and is super stealthy when it hunts underwater, allowing it to sneak up on fish without even a splash. It can dive to depths of up to two-hundred fifty feet.
To top that off, these birds can stay submerged for up to five minutes and even swallow their prey while they are still underwater.
Scientific name: Fulica americana
American Coots are regularly observed congregating in huge flocks on open water (especially during migration).
While American Coots are water birds, they don’t have webbed feet like ducks, but instead have broad, lobed toes.
In addition to their ability to swim on top of the water, Coots are also strong divers, and often forage for food on the bottom of shallow lakes and ponds.
American Bald Eagles like to prey on Coots, and will try to tire out an individual by repeatedly forcing it to dive until it is too exhausted and gives up
These black Illinois birds may be found in a variety of aquatic habitats, including urban park ponds, reservoirs, marshes, and lake shores.
Scientific name: Gallinula galeata
The Common Gallinule is a medium-sized marsh bird with relatively long legs and toes.
Both the male and female have a charcoal body color with a white stripe running down the side, and their outer tail feathers are also white.
Common Gallinules can swim in the water like ducks or geese, and are also able to walk on top of floating plants.
These rails usually remain in close proximity to the protection offered by marsh plants, although they sometimes swim in open water.
Scientific name: Phalacrocorax auritus
The Double-crested Cormorant is a large, dark waterbird with a long neck and blue eyes. It is a year-round resident in Illinois, and is commonly found on lake Michigan and large rivers.
This cormorant likes to gather in large flocks that roost on trees close to water. It is a skilled diver and hunts fish with its large, black bill.
When a group of cormorants flies together, they like to form up in V shaped formations, which can be seen in the evening, when the birds fly to their roosting spots in Illinois.
Scientific name: Megaceryle alcyon
Adult Belted Kingfishers are almost entirely teal blue on top, except for a white collar that separates the cap from the rest of the body.
The Belted Kingfisher prefers habitats directly adjacent to lakes and rivers, where it hunts for fish in shallow water by diving headfirst in to catch them.
This water bird species is a partial migratory bird, and can be seen in Illinois throughout the year if the winter is mild, but will depart to more southern areas in cold winters.
This blue-colored bird of Illinois feeds almost exclusively on small fish, and is therefore rarely seen far away from water.
Scientific name: Pandion haliaetus
The Osprey has a wingspan of up to 69 in (5.5 ft), and resembles an eagle in size.
Ospreys are easy to identify, due to their white underparts and blackish gray upperparts, as well as black wrist patches on their lower wings.
This large Illinois raptor is the only bird of prey that plunges into water to catch fish, often becoming entirely submerged in the water as it attempts to grab a fish with its feet.
Due to this style of hunting, Ospreys are almost always found close to water, except during migration, when they will cross areas without water.
The Osprey is a regular though not very common breeding bird throughout the state of Illinois.
In summary, here are the 29 different types of water birds found in Illinois:
- Northern Pintail
- Green-winged Teal
- American Wigeon
- Northern Shoveler
- Blue-winged Teal
- Wood Duck
- Snow Goose
- Canada Goose
- Great Blue Heron
- Great Egret
- Green Heron
- Cattle Egret
- Snowy Egret
- Black-crowned Night Heron
- American Bittern
- Least Bittern
- Sandhill Crane
- Common Merganser
- Hooded Merganser
- Pied-billed Grebe
- Common Loon
- American Coot
- Common Gallinule
- Double-crested Cormorant
- Belted Kingfisher
If you’ve spotted one of these while bird watching in Illinois, but aren’t sure which species of bird it was, check our detailed bird identification guide above with photos.
If you enjoyed this article, check out our guide to the yellow birds found in Illinois.