Chicago isn’t exactly known for its animals — unless we’re talking about a flock of pigeons perched on a building eave or a rat scampering down an alley.
But the Chicago area is actually home to lots of critters. You can find them swimming in the Chicago River or Lake Michigan, wandering around the surrounding suburbs and making their homes in forest preserves, to name just a few places.
Curious City gets a lot of questions about the animals and wildlife Chicagoans stumble across in their everyday lives, so we decided to round up answers to a few of our most popular questions about local fauna: from animals you might see often like pigeons, geese and rats to local wildlife that might be harder to spot like beavers and coyotes.
Why don’t I ever see any baby pigeons?
If you’ve spent any time in Chicago you’ve likely come across an adult pigeon pecking at crumbs on the sidewalk. But when was the last time you saw a baby pigeon?
According to Chava Sonnier, co-founder and board member of Great Lakes Pigeon Rescue, you likely have seen a baby pigeon. It just depends how you define “baby.”
Since pigeons visually look like adults when they’re four weeks old, it’s easy to mistake a young bird for an adult pigeon, said Sonnier.
That’s especially true because pigeons only start leaving the nest when they’re around three to five weeks old, according to Judy Pollock, president of the Chicago Audubon Society and a representative of the Bird Conservation Network. So by the time they’re out and about they look like adult pigeons.
What you likely haven’t seen are pigeons that are younger than two weeks old. This is when pigeons look like “tiny fuzzy yellow blobs,” as Sonnier described them. When pigeons are that young, they tend to spend their time in their nest, said Sonnier — often with the mother or father pigeon sitting on top of them. Sonnier explained that pigeons don’t reach adulthood until they’re seven to nine months ago, which is when they can start reproducing.
“Sometimes you can catch glimpses of [the baby pigeons in their nests] if you’re walking down Lower Wacker and you look up very carefully, and you can see some little fuzz peeking over the side,” Sonnier said.
How does Chicago track its coyotes?
While coyotes might not be as common a sighting as pigeons, they’re actually living among us in the city. In 2020 there were somewhere around 4,000 coyotes living in the Chicago area. You’re more likely to find coyotes near the lake or in greener areas.
And if you think Chicago coyotes are larger than ones in other areas, you’re right. Since they have access to plenty of protein and carbs, Chris Anchor, a wildlife biologist, said that coyotes here can be larger than those in Nebraska and Colorado.
When it comes to tracking coyotes, Curious City learned that it’s a tough job after joining researchers at the Urban Coyote Research Project, who were looking for coyote dens.
“We’re basically out there searching to find a needle in a haystack,” said associate researcher Shane McKenzie.
Coyotes are actually fairly common in the Chicago Loop, but researchers have a much harder time finding them because of interfering signals from police scanners, cell phone signals and more. Urban coyotes often stick around railroad tracks and in train yards.
Although coyotes do live among people, McKenzie said they’re actually trying to stay away from us. So don’t expect to see a coyote regularly, but if you do catch a glimpse of one, you’re one of the luckier Chicagoans.
Are there beavers in downtown Chicago?
Beaver sightings might call to mind the huge, dome-like lodges made of sticks and branches where the sharp-toothed creatures make their homes, often found in riverbeds in more remote parts of the Midwest.
But while it might seem surprising to come across a beaver in a city, beavers are native to Illinois and many make their home in Chicago and in the surrounding suburbs, according to Margaret Frisbie, executive director at Friends of the Chicago River.
Beavers nearly went extinct in Illinois because of fur hunting. In 1850, the population was incredibly low, but the animals were reintroduced to Illinois starting in 1929. Today, Chicago is becoming a better environment for beavers thanks to the improving water quality, Frisbie said.
Outside the city, beavers tend to build lodges, those dome-shaped piles of sticks normally found along the water’s edge. However, city beavers are more likely to dig dens in riverbeds with entrances underwater, which can’t be seen from above and offer more protection.
Frisbie said that beavers have been spotted in the Chicago River at Wolf Point, Bubbly Creek and North Branch, at Promontory Point, Hyde Park and in suburbs like Evanston and Glenview — although the beavers in Evanston were mysteriously found dead several weeks ago. Beavers also live in the forest preserves in the Chicago area. If you want to increase your chances of spotting a beaver, heading out at dusk or dawn is your best bet since beavers are nocturnal. Frisbie said if you do see a beaver, you should observe it from a distance and refrain from interfering with its activity.
The return of beavers to the Chicago area is a good sign, said Frisbie. A healthy ecosystem for beavers is a healthy ecosystem for humans, too — and having beavers around contributes to the natural landscape. “[Beavers] really are hard workers … They’re damming creeks, they’re creating wetlands, [and] the wetlands create wet meadows, which lead to forests,” Frisbie explained.
Why are there so many geese in Chicago, and how do they survive the winter?
Canada geese almost went extinct in the 1960s because of habitat destruction, but now they’re easily spotted all over Chicago. You’ve likely come across a group of geese hanging around near Lake Michigan or in a park. With trimmed grass for grazing, plentiful food, plenty of ponds and few predators, the Chicago environment is set for them to thrive, Curious City reported last year
While coyotes and raccoons are both known to eat geese, racoons in the city have a far easier time diving into trash cans. And in Cook County, there’s no goose hunting, with the exception of the William Powers Recreation Area, which allows goose hunting during waterfowl season. Mike Ward, a researcher at the University of Illinois who has studied bird migration, thinks that geese may choose to stay in cities like Chicago instead of going to rural areas where they’re more likely to be shot and killed.
Geese are also extremely adaptable and have developed a number of ways to survive Chicago’s winter. For example they’ve learned to handle extreme temperatures — like the polar vortex that hit the city in 2019. According to Ward, when temperatures drop, geese gather on top of factories that have large, flat roofs because they’re warmer than the ground. Ward also says that geese know how to communicate with one another to find the best shelter and warmth.
Sophia Lo is Curious City’s multimedia intern. Follow her @sophiamaylo.