Student Spotlight: Songbirds in the Garden by Noah Horsley

By Kate Gardiner, RORG Communications Manager

Noah Horsley was our second student to be featured for a spotlight series! Noah graduated in May 2020 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with an M.S. in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences. For his thesis, he researched nest success and post-fledging survival of the Common Grackle in Illinois farmland under NRES Professor Mike Ward in the Ward Lab.

I’ve known Noah for five years (and we’re engaged!), so he couldn’t say no when I asked him to share his expertise with the RORG team and social media followers. He has been birding for seven years and knows all the common birds in Illinois, so he put together a series of eight birds that may visit the garden.

Day 1: Northern Cardinal

I’ve seen multiple cardinals within the Red Oak Rain Garden!

Seen in Champaign-Urbana (CU): Year-round
Habitat: Woodland edges, suburban gardens, towns, etc.
Diet: Mostly seeds, insects, and berries
Fun fact: Cardinals are the most popular state bird. Seven states have designated it as such, including Illinois!

Day 2: Black-capped Chickadee

These cute little birds are one of the easiest birds to attract to bird feeders. They often nest in cavities in trees and sometimes even use old woodpecker holes.

Seen in CU: Year-round
Habitat: Mixed and deciduous woods
Diet: Mostly insects, seeds, and berries
Fun fact: This bird hides seeds and other food to eat later. Each food item is hid in a different spot and the chickadee can remember thousands of hiding places.

Day 3: Blue Jay

One of their favorite foods is acorns, so they probably enjoy RORG’s red oak tree!

Seen in CU: Year-round
Habitat: Oak and pine woods, suburban gardens, towns
Diet: Omnivorous. Mostly vegetative matter, but also insects and even frogs
Fun fact: Once in decline due to deforestation, Blue Jays have adapted well to city life and are even expanding their range.

Day 4: Yellow-rumped Warblers

Noah saw this species in the garden over Memorial Day weekend. They nest in conifer trees and are quite common.

Seen in CU: During migration in spring and fall
Habitat: Open forests in summer, shrubby areas like parks and residential neighborhoods in fall
Diet: Mostly insects, but also berries and seeds
Fun fact: The Yellow-rumped Warbler has two distinct subspecies: “Audubon’s” in the west and “Myrtle” in the east. In Illinois, we see the Myrtle.

Day 5: American Robin

You might recognize this songbird, as it’s very common in Illinois and across the US. You’ll often see it foraging in the grass.

Seen in CU: Year-round
Habitat: Lawns, city parks, fields, woodlands
Diet: Mostly insects, berries, and earthworms
Fun fact: Their pretty eggs inspired the color “Robin’s Egg Blue”

Day 6: Black-and-white Warbler

These little guys are often a favorite among beginning birders because they are easy to see and recognize. Noah spotted one in RORG over Memorial Day weekend!

Seen in CU: During breeding season in spring to early fall
Habitat: Woods, tree trunks and limbs
Diet: Insects
Fun fact: It used to be called the “Black-and-white Creeper” because it climbs around on tree trunks looking for insects in the bark crevices.

Day 7: House Sparrow

Though nonnative, the House Sparrow is one of the most common birds in urban areas and thrives in human development.

Seen in CU: Year-round
Habitat: Cities, suburban areas, parks, zoos, farms
Diet: Mostly seeds, but often crumbs left by humans
Fun fact: House Sparrows live in organized groups with a clear hierarchy, led by the male with the biggest black patch on his chest

Day 8: Ruby-throated Hummingbird

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the only breeding hummingbird in eastern North America and an important pollinator. They use their long beaks to get nectar out of red or orange tubular flowers like Cardinal Flower.

Seen in CU: Breeding season in spring to early fall
Habitat: Flowering gardens, open woodlands
Diet: Mostly nectar and insects
Fun fact: Sometimes they eat spiders right out of their webs!

Thank you again to Noah for sharing his insights and to fellow birders who provided photos, especially Rob Kanter and Greg McIsaac. If you would like to create your own student spotlight, just email me at kgardin2@Illinois.edu!

Sources: Student researcher experience and the Audubon Society

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