What's That Sound? Distinctive Birdcalls Heard in Chicago

A red-tailed hawk at Montrose Beach Bird Sanctuary. (Jerry Goldner)

You don't have to be an expert birder or ecologist to enjoy songs and calls from native and foreign birds this time of year in Chicago.

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The city is a hub for migratory birds, given its location on the Mississippi Flyway, a route that extends from Canada through the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi River Valley to the Gulf of Mexico.

Sounds range from the relatively simple, screeching call of raptors to the songbird's vast repertoire of complex vocalizations. They can signal a warning to potential threats or serve as the avian equivalent of a pickup line.

Below, a guide to just some of the distinctive birdcalls you can hear in the city and suburbs this spring. Click the play buttons throughout the story to hear audio samples.


Killdeer often make their calls while in flight. (Jerry Goldner)

The killdeer was named after its unique call, a high-pitched whistle that sounds like “kill-deer!” It’s the state’s most common shorebird, according to wildlife nonprofit the Illinois Raptor Center.

Killdeer have also adapted to offshore environments like golf courses, sports fields and even parking lots. Most nests are simply slight depressions in the ground – they prefer gravel terrain. And while their speckled eggs camouflage well, the young are openly exposed, so the killdeer has developed an intrepid way to ward off potential threats.

This bird is known for its “broken-wing routine” which serves as a distraction for predators. When a killdeer senses a threat near its nest, it pretends to have a broken wing to draw attention away from its eggs or young. After the threat is deemed far enough from the nest, the bird flies away.

Jacques Nuzzo, program director for the Illinois Raptor Center in Decatur, said he’s “fallen for the trick more times than [he’d] like to admit” after approaching a seemingly injured killdeer along the side of the road.

“I’ve had conversations with friends who think birds aren’t maternal,” Nuzzo said. “But when a mother risks her life for her chicks, that’s maternal.”

Killdeer are already nesting in the area, according to Nuzzo. Look for their nests on gravel patches or grassy fields with low vegetation.

Black-capped chickadee

The black-capped chickadee is known for its excellent spatial memory. This bird can remember the exact locations of its hidden food caches for up to a month. (Jerry Goldner)

Like killdeer, black-capped chickadees earned their common name from their distinctive call. The cheery, twittering call sounds like “chick-a-dee!” As testament to the complexity of a songbird’s call, a 2005 study revealed the number of “dee’s” in a black-capped chickadee’s call connotes the level of threat and size of a predator. If a bird is increasingly alarmed, the number of “dee’s” increases.

Nuzzo said the chickadee’s call lets him know there are predators on the center’s several acres of wooded land.

“I know there are cats or some bird of prey on the property when I hear that distinctive ‘chicka-dee-dee-dee’ alarm call,” Nuzzo said. “The more ‘dee-dee-dee’s’ they put in it, the more agitated they are.”

Black-capped chickadees are also frequently spotted at bird feeders: black oil sunflower seeds, suet and peanuts are some of their favorite foods. They’re year-round residents, but Chicago Botanic Garden ecologist Joan O’Shaughnessy said they’re louder than usual during spring.

“A lot of them breed here and they’re birds that you’ll hear more of now because we’re into their breeding season,” O’Shaughnessy said. “People love the black-capped chickadees because they’re very cute with their little black cap.”

Red-winged blackbird

The red-winged blackbird is one of the most abundant birds found in North America, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. (Jerry Goldner)

During this time of year, red-winged blackbirds are common visitors to Chicago. According to Nuzzo, they prefer to nest in marshy, wooded areas near waterways.

The bird stands out for the vibrant red-and-yellow coloring that contrasts with its otherwise pitch-black coat. It also stands out for its piercingly loud, throaty call and it's aggressive response to threats.

“That whole family of birds is very defensive,” Nuzzo said. “I remember, as a child, being chased by common blackbirds. Most birds will get defensive around their nests, but red wings will actually get in your face and swoop at you.”

While walking along the lakeshore near the Adler Planetarium last month, I noticed a bird hopping along the rocky outcrop. The bird’s “chirp” was deafening and sharp. I later learned the bird was a male red-winged blackbird likely defending a nearby nest.

Video: The sharp call of a male red-winged blackbird spotted last month near the Adler Planetarium.

Great horned owl

A great horned owl roosting in Kane County, Illinois. (Kenneth Cole Schneider / Flickr)

This very large owl is common all over North America, including Illinois. To call it adaptable would be an understatement: The great horned owl is able to survive in a variety of natural and urbanized settings. It also has an exceptionally varied diet of over 500 species, from songbirds to skunks.

The low-pitched hoot of the great horned owl is mimics the cadence of “Who’s awake? Me too.” The well-known territorial hooting of the owl peaks around January and February, when pairs are still staking out areas for nesting. But Nuzzo said they hoot year-round, typically late at night, and by early summer, the screeching of their fledglings can be heard.

“The chicks have a call that’s very different from the adults,” he said. “It’s very common for people to ask us about a weird noise coming from the woods in June or July, and it’s great horned owl chicks screaming for their parents.”

The striking feature of this species’ sound is its unusually low frequency, said Nuzzo.

“If you’re close enough to one, you can feel it in your chest – it’s so weird,” he said. “Other owl species have a higher frequency, but the great horned owl has this very deep, low sound that makes it difficult to tell exactly where the bird is since lower frequency sounds travel farther through the air.”

The great horned owl shares much of the same habitat and prey with another formidable raptor in the area: the red-tailed hawk (see below). Despite the owl’s size advantage, there are several accounts of the two species clashing, sometimes fatally, due to their overlapping territory.

Red-tailed hawk

Since the red-tailed hawk is relatively easy to train and very common in the United States, the species is often used in falconry. (Jerry Goldner)

The frighteningly shrill and hoarse scream of the red-tailed hawk is frequently used in Hollywood films as a sort of generic birds-of-prey sound effect. (In fact, bald eagles have a surprisingly nonthreatening call.)

Nuzzo said the call generally indicates the bird is agitated by the presence of another red-tailed hawk or larger raptor in the area. He’s heard it during rescue efforts.

“I usually hear it when I’m putting a chick back in the nest,” he said. “When they do the raspy scream part, we realize we have to get this situation done and get out of the breeding area.”

Nuzzo said Chicagoans will begin hearing that characteristic scream more often now that red-tailed hawks have entered their breeding season and will be sitting on eggs soon, if they aren’t already. He said they pose no danger to humans, although they may give you a jolt on your morning walk.

“You could be walking through a park this time of year and hear a red tail scream because they’re upset that you’re too close to their nest,” Nuzzo said. “Especially if you have a dog – big, furry mammals definitely upset them.”

But Nuzzo said people and their pets are safe as long as they don’t intentionally disturb a hawk’s nest. Although, just to be safe, he said owners of smaller pets may want to keep them close near red-tailed hawks.

The best Chicago birding spots

Wood ducks at Lincoln Park's North Pond. (Victor Grigas / Wikimedia Commons)

Many nesting and migrating birds can be found along bodies of water like Lake Michigan. Several of the photos in this article were taken at Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary. Wooded, protected areas like forest preserves and parks throughout the region are home to many birds, as are attractions like the Chicago Botanic Garden and Lincoln Park Zoo's Nature Boardwalk.

Adding bird feeders to your yard can also be a great way to attract visiting and residential songbirds. 

Follow Evan Garcia on Twitter: @EvanRGarcia

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