A bird of prey, also known as a raptor, is any bird that pursues other animals and feeds on their flesh. All birds of prey have hook-tipped bills, anisodactyl feet with sharp, curved talons, and highly developed vision and hearing.
Raptors are instrumental to keeping Illinois’ natural systems and food webs in balance. In fact, the Land of Lincoln is home to 16 different bird of prey species.
In this article, we take a thorough look at the different Illinois birds of prey. In addition to brief overviews and interesting facts about each species, we’ll learn about where you can spot birds of prey in Illinois, so let’s dive in!
There are six owl species, four hawk species, three falcon species, two vulture species, and one eagle species regularly in Illinois.
The Red-tailed Hawk, the second largest hawk in the United States, is one of the most widespread birds of prey in Illinois. It’s often seen perched on fence posts or soaring in the sky, hunting for prey.
You can’t rely on a Red-tailed Hawk’s feathers to identify the raptor due to the feathers’ varied coloration that ranges from all-white to all-black. Their only unique feature is their red tail.
Red-tailed Hawks can nest and roost in a wide range of habitats, owing to their remarkable adaptability. They live in woods, deserts, forests, parks, and any other open spaces.
Author Note: One interesting fact about these birds of prey is that you’ve most likely heard their screech before. Most often, the scream accompanying Bald Eagles in movies is actually the scream of a Red-tailed Hawk.
Red-shouldered Hawks are large raptors, and they’re named after their distinctive deep reddish-orange shoulders, which extend to a heavily checkered black and white body, tail, and wings.
While Illinois has a large number of these red-shouldered raptors, not all of them are permanent inhabitants. Some hawks visit when the weather is warmer, others in the winter, and some are rare migrants.
These hawks prefer lowland woods near water bodies and areas with dense, tall trees, so they can hunt. They are also seen around suburban areas that intersect with woodlands.
Red-shouldered Hawks have a unique hunting style in which they drop from above on top of their prey, which includes rodents, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.
The Sharp-shinned Hawk, the United States’ tiniest hawk, is one of the smallest raptors in Illinois. It’s covered in blue-gray plumage with an orange-brown underside.
It can be seen all year-round in Illinois’ urban areas, open woods, and woodlands—except during breeding season, which they spend inside coniferous trees.
Sharp-shinned Hawks feed on birds and small mammals, which is why they are often found around backyards.
You can identify Sharp-shinned Hawks by their characteristic piercing “Kik-Kik-Kik.”
These hawks have slate-blue backs and patterned reddish-brown undersides. Their tails are long and rounded with at least four dark bars. This description sounds familiar, right?
Aside from their size differences, the Cooper’s Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawk are nearly identical that, unless you get a close look, it’s hard to tell which species you’re observing.
These agile raptors are usually around deciduous woodlands, but they can be seen in more urban areas, such as in backyards lurking around bird feeders.
The Great Horned Owl is the largest owl species and one of the most widespread raptors in Illinois. This fearsome bird of prey is easily identified by its long grayish-brown ear tufts. It also has an orange-brown face and menacing yellow eyes.
Great Horned Owls have been observed feeding on over 200 mammals and 300 bird species. This diet also includes reptiles, fish, amphibians, and even carrion.
Even though they’re nocturnal raptors, you can see them often at dusk perched somewhere high, waiting for the night.
This adaptable species can be found in a variety of habitats throughout Illinois. They can live in forests and swamps, as well as more urban settings like cities and parks.
Barn Owls are medium-sized, eerily beautiful raptors that are known for their white-ish, heart-shaped faces and piercing cries similar to those of the Red-tailed Hawk.
These owls usually live in old barns—hence the name—as well as in farms and prairies.
Top Tip: Since Barn Owls are strictly nocturnal and incredibly shy, they’re mostly seen, or heard, at night hunting for food.
These birds of prey are efficient hunters that can locate small prey hidden under dense bush or snow in total darkness. They feed on voles, rodents, lizards, insects, birds, and even bats.
Northern Saw-whet Owls are among the tiniest owls in Illinois, as well as among the tiniest raptors. It’s extremely tiny-bodied with a relatively big head without a neck or ear tufts.
These tiny owls can only be seen in Illinois’ woodlands during the winter. They prefer coniferous woodlands, where they can build their nests in tree cavities.
They have cat-like faces and brown plumage with white spots. You can usually see them sitting on low branches at night, looking for prey.
Their diet mainly consists of rodents such as deer mice, voles, and shrews, but they also consume insects, amphibians, bats, and other birds on occasion.
The Eastern Screech-Owl is, like the Northern Saw-whet Owl, a very tiny owl with an oversized head. It has rounded wings and a squared tail.
Most Eastern Screech-Owls have a patterned reddish-brown plumage, but there are some with a patterned dark-gray and light-gray plumage.
Unlike the Northern Saw-whet Owl, this owl species is a permanent resident of Illinois, which inhabits forests, parks, gardens, and swamps.
They hunt at night and their diet changes from season to season. When it’s cold out, Eastern Screech-Owls eat small rodents, and when it’s warm, they eat insects.
Barred Owls are large-sized permanent residents of Illinois. They mainly live in open areas near water bodies or woodlands.
You can identify a Barred Owl by its mottled brown and white plumage, dark brown, almost black eyes, and vertical brown stripes on the underside.
While Barred Owls mainly hunt and feed on mice, they can eat pretty much anything with meat on it, including birds, fish, amphibians, and other small rodents.
If you happen to find a Barred Owl, you may be able to get close to it and observe it. These inquisitive raptors usually watch passers-by, and if they become nervous, they simply fly a little further to continue watching.
10. Short-Eared Owl
Short-eared Owls are known for their small ear tufts and intimidating yellow eyes surrounded by black circles.
They don’t often hoot, but when they make a sound, Short-eared Owls tend to sound a lot like a cat looking for a mate.
Short-eared Owls are best seen in open areas, such as marshes, parks, fields, and meadows. They’re most active at dusk or dawn, looking for food.
These raptors tend to hunt in the late afternoon and early evening for insects, smaller birds, and rodents.
11. Peregrine Falcon
The Peregrine Falcon is known for its grayish, brownish, or bluish plumage with a white throat and underside. The black “sideburns” or “tear stripe” on the falcon’s cheeks are its most distinguishing feature.
Author Note: You can find this falcon species all over Illinois, especially around high cliffs, high-rise buildings, and near water bodies.
What’s more, Peregrine Falcons don’t bother building nests. Instead, they lay their eggs on tall buildings, which is why they’re so common in cities.
They’re also not finicky about food, so they eat whatever they can get their feet on. Their diet consists of birds; these falcons prey on at least 450 different bird species, including ducks and gulls.
12. American Kestrel
American Kestrels are both the smallest of all falcon species and the smallest birds of prey in Illinois. Their size doesn’t matter, though, because these falcons can snatch similarly sized birds from the air with their feet.
The American Kestrel falcon is also one of the most colorful raptors. The male falcons have grayish-blue heads and wings.
The female falcons, on the other hand, have blue heads with a gray crown and warm orange all over their plumage.
While these small falcons primarily feed on insects and invertebrates, they also hunt small animals and other birds.
They can be seen in Illinois all year round, but they’re most active in the summer. You’ll usually find American Kestrels roosting on picket fences and telephone lines.
The Merlin is another small-sized falcon that can be seen around Illinois, but only during August.
Merlin males can be identified by their mostly grayish-blue plumage and their black tails with white stripes. Female and young Merlins are more brownish-gray.
These tiny falcons are known for being insatiable. When they’re not hunting, these falcons are probably looking for their next meal while they’re perched high somewhere.
That’s why they’re mostly seen on treetops near forests and open grasslands.
14. Turkey Vulture
The Turkey Vulture is easily identified by its all-black plumage, except for a bald, reddish head and a pinkish beak.
Turkey Vultures have a heightened sense of smell that helps them find dead meat, which they mainly feed on.
While these vultures have become accustomed to being around humans, they don’t venture too near or visit backyards. The only reason they’d do it is if there’s carrion nearby.
Turkey Vultures are commonly seen beside highways, on dead trees, or over open areas. If you see a large, black raptor making wobbly circles with its wings raised high enough to resemble the letter “V,” it’s most likely a Turkey Vulture.
15. Black Vulture
The Black Vulture is an all-black, short and dapper vulture. Aside from the red head and pink peak, you can tell the difference between a Turkey Vulture or a Black Vulture from the wings’ coloration.
Whereas Turkey Vultures have a grayish plumage on the underside of their wings, Black Vultures have silvery wingtips.
Black Vultures, like Turkey Vultures, feed mainly on dead animals. It’s, however, not uncommon for them to feed on living animals such as skunks, opossums, baby pigs, calves, and lambs.
What’s more, unlike most other vulture species, the Black Vulture tends to kill their prey to feed on fresh meat.
These vultures usually nest and roost in forests or open areas in Illinois. Because their sense of smell isn’t as keen as that of Turkey Vultures, Black Vultures can be seen flying high above Turkey Vultures, waiting for carrion.
16. Bald Eagle
Bald Eagles, one of the most recognizable birds of prey, are large raptors with stocky bodies and hooked yellow bills nearly as long as their heads. Their bodies and wings are brown, with yellow feet and white heads as well as tails.
Interestingly enough, Bald Eagles aren’t actually bald. Their heads are completely covered in white feathers. The name, though, comes from the Old English word “piebald,” which means “white patch.”
Top Tip: Because Bald Eagles live in areas with a lot of trees and near water bodies, fish makes up the majority of their diet.
Still, they feed on other animals, such as birds, turtles, rabbits, waterfowls, and carrion.
Because Illinois exists at the junction of five major ecosystems, it hosts a highly diverse range of habitats. This diversity explains why many raptors visit or permanently live in Illinois.
Sometimes all you need to spot a bird of prey is to head out to your backyard where you can see them hunting around bird feeders. We hope you enjoyed this guide on Illinois birds of prey.
You may need to go a little out of your way for some species, though. Just find a good place that the birds of prey frequent, take a pair of binoculars with you, and you’re set to go.
That said, if you’re not a resident of Illinois, you can participate in bird-watching communities. These communities organize field trips, conservation projects, and gatherings dedicated to various bird species, including Illinois birds of prey.