Birds of prey are relatively elusive, especially the nocturnal ones, but there are more species of this kind of bird in Illinois than you would think. Birds of prey aren't the type of bird to come to your birdfeeder or hop around in your back yard. Instead, you are most likely to see them soaring in the air or perching in a very high place, like a treetop. If you visit a prairie or an open area, you might even see one zooming down to the ground to catch prey. Birds of prey are very interesting birds, and Illinois is host to a great many.
The red-tailed hawk is probably the most well-known bird of prey in Illinois, and it is pretty common. We sometimes even see this bird in our back yard, and it is bold enough to perch on our fence. If red-tailed hawks live in your neighborhood, however, be careful with your pets. The red-tailed hawk is predatory, and it has been known to attack small cats and dogs. Usually, though, it sticks to its main source of prey: small rodents and birds. If you see a red-tailed hawk in the sky, you can recognize it by either its dark reddish-orange tail, or its wing silhouette. Red-tailed hawks have wings that form a straight line when they are spread, unlike some other birds (like falcons), which have more angled wings.
Another interesting bird of prey is the barred owl, a very shy bird that can be only seen at night. Actually, it is more likely that you will hear this bird, rather than see it. If you hear an owl calling at night and it sounds something like "who-cooks-for-you," it is probably a barred owl. There is a pair living in the tree across the street from me, and sometimes we can hear them softly calling to each other. The barred owl is not a particularly aggressive owl, unlike another native species in Illinois, the great-horned owl, and it is often very shy. However, if you do see one, it can be recognized from its grey and brown plumage, as well as its heart-shaped face.
The bald eagle is a bird of prey we all know and love, and surprisingly, it is native to Illinois. It is not very common, though, and you will have to go to a body of water, usually a river, to find one. Bald eagles are especially common in more natural areas like the Mississippi River, or Starved Rock State Park. Unlike the barred owl and red-tailed hawk, the main source of prey for the bald eagle is fish. It is more similar to the osprey in that regard, since the osprey is another fishing raptor. Bald eagles were very endangered for a time and still are, because in the past, certain chemicals caused their egg shells to be too delicate, killing the offspring. However, humans have tried to stop using this chemical, so bald eagles have made a comeback. The bald eagle is a rare sight, but worth traveling all that way to a body of water. Next time you are near a river, scan the skies.
Photo: Tatiana Gettleman/Flickr, kansasphoto/Flickr