Rock Falls Area Animal Encyclopedia

 The Rock Falls area is home to many types of wildlife. What will you see when you visit? Thanks to the help of Scott Schaeffer, District Wildlife Biologist, Il. Dept. of Natural Resources and Karen Rivera, IDNR Streams Biologist, I got a more in depth view of nature all around us.


Spring & Fall- Migratory Waterfowl

Migratory waterfowl are known to use what is called Flyways. Millions of birds make their way down the Waterfowl Flyways for warmer days & plentiful eats. Rock Falls is a resting stop for birds migrating from Canada down to the Gulf Coast along the Mississippi Flyway, a flight that takes these birds more than 2,300 miles to complete! When they visit Rock Falls, they come to re-charge their batteries and get a bite to eat.

You can see these birds in abundance along the Sinnissippi Dam WalkwaySeward Riverside ParkThe Hennepin Feeder CanalCentennial Park and Lawrence Park.


Have you ever gone to a pond, river or lake to feed the ducks? If you have, there is a good chance, if you live in North America that you fed one of these colorful birds. Mallards are large bodied dabbling ducks who like to dip their heads underwater to graze on plants and invertebrates beneath the surface of the water. So beautiful, you may find yourself at Showplace Antiques and Treasures, face to face with a vintage hunting decoy. The best places to find Mallard ducks are at Seward Riverside ParkJim Arduini Boat RampHennepin Feeder CanalLawrence ParkLower Dam ParkCentennial Park and pretty much anywhere a duck can get its feet wet in the Rock Falls Area! Below are a male and female Mallard ducks by the Jim Arduini Boat ramp & the entrance to the Hennepin Feeder Canal.

Blue-Winged Teal

The smallest of the dabbling ducks, they go quite the distance. Some of these low flying birds make it down as far as South America. They are much smaller than the Mallard and "look for Blue-winged Teal on calm bodies of water from marshes to small lakes. The prairie-pothole region is the heart of their breeding range, where they thrive in grassy habitats intermixed with wetlands." Centennial ParkStorybook Trail and the Hennepin Feeder Canal are a few choice spots to find this bird. 

For more information on Migratory Birds in Illinois Click Here.

Wading Birds

These birds are long legged and frequent shallow waters especially when looking for food (hence wading).  As the Rock River flows over the upper dam & lower dam past Lawrence Park to Crow Valley Campground, the water is shallow. The dinner bell rings quite loudly for wading birds in our area. If you are interested in finding some of the best fishing spots. Look for these birds.

Great Blue Heron

If you’re from the Rock Falls/Sterling area and sat along the Rock River, you have a bird’s eye view of the Great Blue Heron. The year round bird has called our area their home to the benefit of bird watchers everywhere.

Double Crested Cormorants

I like to call them "the entertainers". It's not a scientific term by any measure, but it suits them perfectly. As I stated, the Rock River is shallow between the dams. Logs make it through the dam and sit. When a log sits, so does the Double Crested Cormorants, in a row, along the log or if they're lucky, they'll find a rock just above water level...and um... totally intimidate the Pelicans.

White Pelicans

To me, the White Pelican is an amazing asset to the Rock River Valley. I mean-We.Have.Pelicans. AND We.Have.Bald.Eagles. I'm jumping ahead of myself though.

I wasn't able to get the best "side" of the pelicans this summer, but you can see them yourself while walking along the Sinnissippi Dam Walkway . You may also see this determined Double Crested Cormorant.  "2 Pelicans & a Double Breasted Cormorant"- ABC's new hit comedy series. *wink* 

A shout out to Lorraine Joachim and her incredible Pelican Photos on Facebook. The Sinnissippi Dam Walkway had so many visits that Facebook generated a page. Your pictures are wonderful!

Canada Geese

Some migrate and some stay year round. It's why it seems like they never leave. Some don't! Walk towards the Rock River and you will hear the familiar honking sound of the Canadian Goose. Anywhere along the Rock. They're there. You'll see 'em. I promise. The best places to find a lot of geese are at Seward Riverside Park, Lower Dam Park, Sinnissippi Park, Lawrence Park & Centennial Park. Don't get too close though. They not into warm fuzziness. Count how many geese took interest in me taking their photo at Centennial Park. Check out the image gallery.   I've never had that many geese staring at me at once.

Birds Of Prey

Rock Falls has the "wow factor" when it comes to birds of prey-for YEARS. What's our "wow factor"?

We have raptors that hunt and feed on other animals. Before you start visualizing Jurassic World (too late), keep in mind, our raptors are REAL. We have Red Tailed Hawks, Great Horned Owls and Bald Eagles. 

Red Tailed Hawks

Look up to the sky over the Rock River, any local park, along the trails in Rock Falls and Sterling or an open field. You'll see a large reddish bird with a wide, rounded wing span, gliding on the wind, circling. That's the Red Tailed Hawk. Circling the prey is not just a catchy phrase, it is how the Red Tailed Hawk hunts voles, mice, wood rats, rabbits, snakes, squirrels, and a multitude of small birds. Although if a black bird or bobwhite quail looks tasty, it will eat them too. That cool shriek sound that Hollywood uses for most birds of prey (including Jurassic Park Raptors) is actually the Red Tailed Hawk. Lucky is the person who gets a photograph and to hear his hit-movie worthy shriek.

Great Horned Owls 

"With its long, earlike tufts, intimidating yellow-eyed stare, and deep hooting voice, the Great Horned Owl is the quintessential owl of storybooks. This powerful predator can take down birds and mammals even larger than itself, but it also dines on daintier fare such as tiny scorpions, mice, and frogs.  You may not see them on your first visit to the Rock Falls Area, but I guarantee that if you spend enough time in our parks and along the Rock River or Hennepin Canal you will hear them! 

Bald Eagle

The eagles are back!!!  !

In the winter the birds migrate south looking for open waters.  We are fortunate that the Mississippi River Valley boasts one of largest overwintering regions in the continental United States!  Rock Falls has a large population of these magnificent birds currently calling this their winter home!  Bird watching enthusiasts can usually spot many between December and March, after that the birds migrate back to their home in the north.

Bald Eagles main diet is fish. A testimate to our amazing fishing on the Rock River, is watching an Eagle dive down and catch one right out of the water! The National Eagle Center states, "their prey items include waterfowl and small mammals like squirrels, prairie dogs, raccoons and rabbits. Bald eagles are opportunistic predators meaning that in addition to hunting for live prey, they will steal from other animals (primarily from other eagles or smaller fish eating birds) or scavenge on carrion."

At the last City of Rock Falls, Hennepin Canal/Trails Committee meeting, we were told that the Hennepin Canal is inundated with Bald Eagles right now. Start at the Hennepin Feeder Canal (in Rock Falls, IL) and walk your way down the tow path to see these magnificent birds. Places to find Bald Eagles: Hennepin Feeder Canal,  Jim Arduini Boat LaunchSeward Riverside ParkLower Dam ParkLawrence ParkCrow Valley Campground and Prophetstown State Park. We hope you enjoy this wonderful opportunity to see these truly beautiful creatures. It's breathtaking!


White-tailed Deer 

Back in 1980, I helped choose our state animal. It's not like they pulled me out of my classroom and said "Hey Janell, we need your opinion on something". It would have made for a really cool story but, all school children in Illinois voted. I'd like take a moment to collectively pat ourselves on the back for that choice. *pat-pat* I think we did well. 

The White-tailed Deer is the only deer native to Illinois. They stand 3 to 4 feet tall at the shoulder. During the summer the hair of both sexes is reddish brown to tan, and in winter is grayish-brown. The upper throat, belly, inner rump, and insides of the legs are white, as is the underside of the tail, thus the name "white-tailed" deer. Deer usually become active close to dusk when they leave their resting areas to go out and feed. Large numbers of deer may be seen together in areas of key habitat or at prime food sources, particularly during late winter when food can be in short supply. Is there a possibility if you visit Rock Falls area parks, the Rock River and the Hennepin Canal that you will see a White-tailed deer? Timing is everything. So is slow movements and quiet. I have been seeing them for years in the Sauk Valley Area, and I'm not the deer whisperer.

Red Fox

The awwwww factor is huge with this animal, BUT- the Red Fox is a wild animal. We live in the Greater Rock Falls Area where City Life & Nature Meet. When you meet nature, enjoy the view and please give them space.

The Red Fox is small, approximately three feet in length including the tail, and weigh 7 to 14 pounds. They are the only mammals in Illinois with a coat of rusty red fur. The fur on the outer ears, legs, and feet are dark brown to blackish. The cheeks, throat, underside, and tip of the tail are white.  Red foxes have five toes on the front feet and four toes on the rear feet and are known to leave small bones from their kills in the den for their young to play with. I've had glimpses of them. Darn it they're adorable. 


The Coyote gets a bad rap. They are valuable members of the wildlife community and do more good than harm where humans are concerned. Coyotes belong to the family Canidae (dog family) along with other dog-like mammals such as the red fox, gray fox and wolf. The coyote looks like a medium-sized dog (German Shepard), but its nose is more pointed and its tail is bushier than most dogs and they carry it below or level with their back. Coyotes are sly, always on hyper-alert and present a challenge to anyone who is willing to try and pursue them. The average length of an adult is 44 to 54 inches, including a 15- to 17-inch tail. The Eagles along the Hennepin Canal have brought the Coyotes to the trail. I can't say enough times to those visiting our area: We are the Urban Crossroads: Where City Life & Nature Meet. When you meet nature, enjoy the view and please give them space.

Cottontail Rabbit

Eastern cottontails belong to the Leporidae family (rabbit and hare family). Cottontails are easy to identify by their long ears, large back feet, and small tails that are white on the underside. They have buff to brownish gray fur with white undersides. Cottontails typically weigh two to four pounds and are fully grown by six months of age. Any walk that you may take in the Greater Rock Falls area parks, trails and along the Rock River & Hennepin Feeder Canal may result in a bunny sighting!

If you find a rabbit nest do not disturb the young or the nest. The female has not abandoned her young. To keep predators from finding the young the female only visits the nest twice a day to nurse them, typically once in early morning and again in the evening.


River Otters

These playful mammals which are part of the weasel family, are well adapted for semi-aquatic living. They have thick, protective fur to help them keep warm while swimming in cold waters. They have short legs, webbed feet for faster swimming, and a long, narrow body and flattened head for streamlined movement in the water. A long, strong tail helps propels them through the water. They can stay underwater for as much as eight minutes. Overtrapping and pollution dwindled their numbers, but with the help of the IDNR, the River Otter has bounced back and are off Illinois endangered list. The highest concentration of River Otter is in Northwestern Illinois. The Rock Falls Area is an oasis for many animals in Illinois!


Who knew? I certainly didn't. I spoke with the owner of Crow Valley Campground and she stated that they have Mink sightings at their campground. Mink are found in every county in Illinois and like the River Otter is a member of the weasel family. They're most abundant in the glacial lakes area of northeastern Illinois, counties bordering the lower Mississippi River, and the southern third of the state. While they still are common, wild mink are less abundant than they were 50 to 100 years ago because of habitat loss caused by development, stream channelization and drainage of wetlands. Mink live along rivers, streams, lakes, ponds and marshes. Shorelines with grass, brush, trees or aquatic vegetation like cattails provide good cover and abundant prey.


I have great memories of going to the Green River with my Grandpa Burkey to check out Beaver Dams. What was a nuisance to farmers was/is an architectural wonder to me. In an amazing reversal of fortune, beaver populations in Illinois have jumped to highs not seen since the wilderness-era of the early 1800s. Yes! WTG-IDNR. Due to proper regulation and management by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, beavers have made a big comeback from near extinction.

As a result of this resurgence, beavers are a blessing and a bane. On the good side, Illinois beavers naturally assist in developing critically needed wetlands, which help purify water for people and provide homes for wildlife. The other side, chewed up trees and flooded farm fields. Bluett notes,

“On the other hand, beavers have done more to create vital wetlands and tame floodwaters than human engineers could ever hope to accomplish.” ...That moment when you are humbled and in awe of how nature knows better than us humans.

Game Birds

  1. noun: any bird hunted chiefly for sport, as a quail or pheasant, especially such a bird that is protected by game laws.

 Landscape diversity in Illinois has created a myriad of opportunities and experiences available for hunting & trapping a variety of species. I need to underline and highlight to anyone and everyone: Hunting and trapping play important roles in the ecology and conservation of Illinois’ game species.

Ring Neck Pheasants

Found on farmland with grasslands these birds are on the decline. They love open country and are found where there was original prairie.  In the Rock Falls Area, I recommend Storybook Trail & the Hennepin Feeder Canal. Storybook Trail is in it's third year growth of Prairie and should be absolutely beautiful. Take a look at last years prairie along Storybook Trail. Cattail marshes, clumps of willow, unharvested grain plots, switchgrass patches and brushy fence rows are ideal nesting areas during the winter months. Prairie is preferred. Over the years, I have seen many pheasants. They are striking to look at and worth the time to snap a photo. Look at those colors!

Wild Turkey

Wild turkeys were abundant in Illinois prior to European settlement. During the 1800s, unregulated hunting and the extensive clearing of forests were the beginning of the decline of the species. The state legislature closed the state to wild turkey hunting in 1903, in an effort to preserve the remaining populations. It was too little too late, and by 1910 wild turkeys had been eliminated from Illinois.

Beginning in 1959, wild-trapped turkeys were obtained from other states to begin our stocking efforts. From the 1970s through the year 2003, Illinois trapped wild turkeys from areas where they were thriving and transplanted them to suitable habitat that had not yet been re-colonized.

Illinois now has wild turkeys throughout the state where habitat is suitable. I recommend walking/biking the Hennepin Canal, Storybook Trail in Rock Falls or Big Bend Fish & Wildlife Conservation Area when looking for Wild Turkey near Prophetstown, IL. For Bike Rentals, give Mead's Bike Shop a call! They're right across the Rock River in Sterling, IL.

Bobwhite Quail

The Bobwhite Quail is a short, pump bird about 10 inches long, weighing only 6 to 7 ounces. Their rustic colors makes it easy for them to blend into their habitat, which unfortunately has dwindled. Increases in farm & field sizes to clearing grasslands, fence rows and brushy area have taken away their best nesting habitats. The Hennepin Canal is the perfect place to spot them (if you can!). The farm fields meet the canal with a buffer of trees, long grasses and thickets.

 Rock River Fishing

There are more than 80 species of fish in the Rock River Basin, including several species of sport fish.  The most sought after of the sport fish are the catfish, with both channel catfish and flathead catfish abundant and of trophy size. In fact, the Rock River is one of the best rivers in the state of Illinois for catching trophy size catfish!  

The Rock River, between Dixon and Erie was surveyed in the fall of 2015 to assess the size structure and condition of the flathead and channel catfish populations.  A total of 301 flathead catfish were collected with 300 of these over 16” in size!  Of these, 203 were of preferred size (24”), and 120 of memorable size (28”)!  Thirty-six of the fish collected were in the trophy range (over 36”), representing 12% of the sample, with 11 (3.65%) over 40”!  The 36” fish averaged 24 pounds in weight while the 40” fish averaged 41 pounds! The largest flathead catfish collected during this study was a 44” fish weighing 42 pounds.  With 12% of the flathead catfish in the Rock River in this area in the trophy range, catching one of these behemoths is highly probable. Click Here for a Map of The Rock River.

The channel catfish collected in this study averaged 3.78 pounds.  A total of 730 channel catfish were collected with the largest collected just downstream of the Rock Falls/Sterling Lower Dam.  In this area, 36% of the fish collected were over 24” in length.  Overall, 83% of the total channel catfish collected were of quality size (16” or larger) which bodes well for fishermen looking for a stringer of nice fish! 

Click Here for the Rock River Fishing Guide.

“What about Mountain Lions, Gray Wolves and Black Bears?” you may ask. 

In Illinois, suitable habitat for any of the three species is very limited. Except for a small “swatch” in Northwestern Illinois. Guess where Rock Falls is located in Illinois?

The likelihood of actually encountering one of these amazing animals is still slim. But, if you do spot one, The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is very interested in any information or possible sighting of black bears, grey wolves or mountain lions in Illinois. If you see one of these animals, click here.

 These animals are protected.  The IDNR has the authority to manage these species for the protection of both wildlife and public safety. All three species were present when settlers arrived in Illinois, but were all but gone from the state by the mid-1800s. Due to improved legal protections and habitat restoration, these species are returning to some of their former range in the eastern United States. 

Wolves, Black Bears and Mountain Lions (Cougars) have been absent from Illinois for more than 150 years.

The Greater Rock Falls Area is bursting with wildlife and we are lucky to have the IDNR & the conservancy minded City of Rock Falls and it's citizens, working tirelessly to ensure the survival and growth of countless species. The IDNR's latest restoration was  Big Bend Fish & Wildlife Conservation Area near Prophetstown, IL. It's only a half hour away and worth the visit. They just completed a major wetland restoration and rehab project there last fall (2015). Many of the marshes can be observed from or near the roadsides, as well as some of the terrestrial habitats that will have wildlife viewing vistas. Thank you Illinois Department of Natural Resources and  Scott Schaeffer! For more information on Prophetstown State Park Click Here.

The Rock Falls Area Animal Encyclopedia highlights some of the birds, mammals and fish in our area. See below for the list provided by Scott Schaeffer, District Wildlife Biologist, IL Dept. of Natural Resources (even he gave me a short list as there are an abundance of animals living in Rock Falls and beyond...).