Birds at Your Feeder in Iowa

Red-winged Blackbird by Alan D. Wilson

Last Updated on January 26, 2024 by Greg Gillson

What birds come to feeders in Iowa?

This article discusses the most common birds at bird feeders in Iowa throughout the year. Other feeder birds may be more common seasonally, but these should be present most of the year.

I start with a quick list of Iowa feeder birds and then provide more information if you are so interested.

Feeding birds in Iowa can bring much joy!

Here are 10 birds that you are most likely to see at your bird feeder in Iowa:

  • Northern Cardinal
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • American Goldfinch
  • Mourning Dove
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • House Sparrow
  • Blue Jay
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • White-breasted Nuthatch

Northern Cardinal

The most common feeder bird in Iowa is the Northern Cardinal. Read more about it, below.

Photo of Northern Cardinal
Northern Cardinal. Greg Gillson

Northern Cardinals are one of the most popular birds in the United States. Even people who haven’t seen one in life have seen their image on logos and advertisements.

These birds are year-round residents from the northeastern United States south to Florida, west to the Midwest, southern Great Plains to Arizona.

They are found in woodlands, hedgerows, and dense backyard shrubs.

Both males and females sing, a series of repeated whistles.

These birds are less bulky than European Starlings, but just as long. The have a very long tail and big head with tall crest.

The bill is very thick at the base, short, with curved edges. It is usually obviously orange.

Males are bright red throughout, with hints of blue on the wings, tail, and back. They have a black throat patch that reaches to the eye and over the bill.

Females are dull brown or buffy yellow in coloration with red highlights on the edges of the wings and tail. Their crest isn’t quite as pronounced as the males. They still show the black around the bill.

Northern Cardinals eat larger seeds at your feeder, including black oil sunflower seeds and safflower seeds.

Red-winged Blackbird

      Red-winged Blackbird by Rhododendrites

Red-winged Blackbirds are common birds across North America. 

In summer they are found from Alaska, across Canada, south into Mexico. In winter they abandon much of Canada and the northern Great Plains and Midwest. 

They nest in marshes in summer, where there are cattails and similar plants. In winter they spread out into fields, cattle lots, and residential neighborhoods. These birds are colonial nesters in cattail marshes. 

In fall and winter, they form very large flocks composed of many young-of-the-year, starlings, grackles, cowbirds, and other blackbirds. Such flocks can number in the hundreds of thousands, especially in the East. 

These birds are about the size of American Robins, perhaps a bit smaller. They are stocky with a fairly long tail. They have rather flat foreheads that accentuate the long bill. The bill is fairly stout at the base, long, pointed, and straight on the upper and lower edges. 

Males are glossy black with yellow-edged red shoulders that can be hidden in the scapular feathers when the wings are at rest. 

Females are a bit smaller than males. They are pale with heavy brown streaks on the under parts. Some populations show buff on the face. They may confuse beginners into thinking they are some kind of streaky sparrow. The flat crown and very straight and sharply pointed bill point to their identification as blackbirds. 

 At your feeder they will eat black oil sunflower seeds and suet.

American Goldfinch

Photo of American Goldfinch
American Goldfinch. Greg Gillson

The American Goldfinches are favorite backyard birds across North America. Many people call them “wild canaries.” 

These active birds are year-round residents coast-to-coast across northern and mid-latitudes of the United States. 

In summer birds move into southern Canada. In winter birds are found throughout the United States.

They are found in weedy pastures and brushy clearings. In town, they favor parks and residential areas with lawns and scattered trees. They often feed on thistles or dandelion seeds on the ground. But they also fly over open spaces between trees with a bounding roller-coaster flight and a lilting “potato chip” call. 

These are small birds, smaller than House Finches. They are rather plump birds with small round heads and short tails. The bill is small but it is conical for eating seeds. It is colored pink. 

Summer males are striking with their brilliant yellow and black plumage. The body is yellow and they have a black crown. The wings and tail feathers are black and white. 

Females are duller olive-green without the black crown. They have thin white wing bars. 

Juvenile birds in fall show striking tan wing bars on the black wing. 

In winter both genders are pale gray and tan with brown wings and tail. They may only show a hint of yellow on the head and throat. 

At your feeder, American Goldfinches love black oil sunflower seeds and Niger seed. They are especially common at feeders in summer and fall.

Mourning Dove

Photo of Mourning Dove
Mourning Dove. Greg Gillson

The mournful summer song of Mourning Doves is familiar to most, even if they don’t know what bird makes the sound. 

They are found across the United States as year-round residents. Birds summer in the northern Great Plains and south central Canada, but withdraw in winter. 

These birds are found in towns and farms, and open country with scattered trees, often along rivers. 

In spring they sing from power lines in residential areas. They may puff out their chests while cooing from the peak of your roof. 

These birds are much larger than European Starlings, but also much smaller than American Crows. These birds have large powerful breasts, a tiny round head on thin neck, and long pointed tail. Their wings are somewhat pointed in flight. The bill is small as typical for all pigeons. Genders are identical. 

These birds are warm tan or brown colored. The breast has a pinkish hue. The wings are gray. They have a few large black spots on the wing coverts. They have a black spot on the side of the neck below the cheek that sometimes shows some iridescent green feathers. The tail has white edges, best seen in flight. 

At your bird feeder Mourning Doves eat all types of seeds. They are also attracted to water for drinking and bathing.

Downy Woodpecker

Photo of Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker. Greg Gillson

Downy Woodpeckers are tiny and common visitors to backyards across the United States. 

These woodpeckers inhabit nearly all of North America south of the tundra and away from the driest deserts. 

Often found near water, they like small deciduous trees, willows, and brush. Common in backyards. 

Like other woodpeckers, these birds hitch up small trees. However, they often cling to the small outer branches. They even hang on twigs and small bushes such as wild rose and teasel. 

They are bigger than House Finches, smaller than Red-winged Blackbirds, but shaped differently than either. These birds have stocky bodies and big heads. They have short, stiff, pointed tails. The legs are short. The feet are large with strong claws. The bills of these woodpeckers are chisel shaped but especially short and petite. 

The overall pattern of these birds is black-and-white stripes. The wings are black with numerous white spots and bars. The back is white. The underparts are white or tinged with buff. The face is white; the crown and nape is black, the ear covert black, and there is a black malar stripe. The tail is black with white outer tail feathers. Males have a red spot on the nape that females lack. 

Downy Woodpeckers eat suet at your feeder.

House Sparrow

Photo of House Sparrow
House Sparrow. Greg Gillson

House Sparrows were first introduced into the United States in 1851 and quickly became common coast-to-coast. 

These birds are year-round residents from Canada south through Mexico. They originally were birds of Europe and Asia, but have colonized basically every human-occupied city in the world. 

Towns and cities are the primary habitats of these birds. Wherever there are permanent human settlements, these birds are there. They choose to nest in houses, buildings, and other human-made structures, but also in nest boxes provided for other birds. They also thrive in farms and ranches, especially stables and grain storehouses. 

These are social birds, often found in large flocks. They tend to squabble and have a complex hierarchy. Males are dominant in fall and winter, but females dominate in spring and summer. They also tend to be aggressive toward other birds at the feeder. 

These sparrows are not related to New World Sparrows. Thus they are differently shaped. They have a short body and full breast, large head, and short tail. The bill is triangular: short pointed but thick at the base. The bill of female and fall males is dull yellowish. The bill of spring males is black. 

In fresh fall plumage males are dingy brown above, with dark stripes on the back, dusty brown on wings and tail, with a gray rump. They have one large white upper wing bar. They have a bit of black on the chin. As their pale feather tips wear off during winter and spring, the black bib on the male reveals itself. The crown becomes grayer, the face whiter, and chestnut patches on the nape and shoulder become more obvious. 

Females remain in a dull plumage all year. The under parts are dingy gray. Upper parts dull brown with dark lines on the back. They also show a small white upper wing bar. The face shows a brown crown and stripe behind the eye, offset by a wide buffy eyebrow. 

At the feeder House Sparrows eat a wide variety of seeds, but they like cracked corn and red milo (ingredients found in cheaper bird seed) that many native sparrows and finches do not like. They also have rather weak feet. So to reduce the number of House Sparrows at your feeder, switch to black oil sunflower seeds in a tube feeder.

Blue Jay

Photo of Blue Jay
Blue Jay. skeeze Pixabay

Blue Jays are one of the most well-known birds in the United States. 

Birds are found year-round east of the Rocky Mountains from southern Canada to Texas and eastward. There is a noticeable migration of some of their population in most of their range. Birds move northward into the Great Plains of Canada for the summer. 

Though they are found in woodlands of all type, they are especially attracted to oak trees. They are common in residential areas, too. 

Brash and conspicuous, Blue Jays have a complex social structure. The more the crest is raised, the more excited or agitated the bird is. 

Jays are fairly large backyard birds. They are just a bit larger than American Robins. These are stout birds with large rounded or wedge-shaped tails. They have large legs and feet. They have a bushy crest. The bill is fairly long, strong. 

Genders are similar in plumage. They are blue above, including the crest. They are gray below with a black necklace across the throat. The wings are barred with black, with white wing bars and trailing edges. The blue tail is barred with black and has white tail corners. 

At your feeder, Blue Jays love whole peanuts and sunflower seeds.

Black-capped Chickadee

Photo of Black-capped Chickadee
Black-capped Chickadee. Greg Gillson

The cute Black-capped Chickadees must be one of the favorite birds at feeders across much of North America. 

They are year-round residents in Alaska and across Canada south across the northern half of the United States. 

These birds are found in deciduous and mixed woods, orchards, and backyards. They feed in small flocks acrobatically on the end of twigs, searching for invertebrates and small seeds. 

In winter they make up the core of roaming mix feeding flocks. These flocks include chickadees, kinglets, nuthatches, and often include Brown Creepers, Downy Woodpeckers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and wrens. 

These are small birds, smaller than House Finches. They are about the same length as American Goldfinches. The bodies of chickadees are round and plump. They have big heads and long tails that flit about. They have long legs and big feet. The bills are short and stout. This allows them to eat both seeds and invertebrate foods. 

These birds are gray above and buffy below. They have striking black caps and bibs, offset by their white face. You may also notice the white secondary wing edges of the folded wing. Genders are identical in appearance. 

At your feeder, Black-capped Chickadees love black oil sunflower seeds. They take these one-at-a-time to a nearby branch. They hold the seed with their feet and pound the shell open with their bill to get the kernel inside. In fall they often take the whole seed away and store it for the winter, in what is called a cache.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Photo of Red-bellied Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker. skeeze. Pixabay

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are one of the common woodland birds in the East. 

These birds are year-round residents from the Northeast to the Midwest, and south from Florida to eastern Texas. 

They aren’t too picky in their choice of trees. They are found in deciduous and conifer forests. They may be found in parks and neighborhoods with mature trees. Learn and listen for the loud rolling churr call of these woodpeckers. You may find they are more common than you first thought. 

These birds are a bit larger than European Starlings. They a stocky with large head and short wedge-shaped tail. The bill is long, straight. and chisel shaped. 

The upper parts, including the back and wings are covered with thin black-and-white bars. The head and under parts are pale tan or gray. They have white rumps and black tails with barred outer tail feathers. 

Males have red crowns from their bill to their back. Some also show a reddish wash to their belly. 

Females have red crowns from the top of their head back, with gray fore-crowns. 

At feeders, Red-bellied Woodpeckers love suet, and also eat peanuts.

White-breasted Nuthatch

Photo of White-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch. Greg Gillson

White-breasted Nuthatches are the largest of 4 nuthatch species in North America. 

These birds are year-round residents across southern Canada and all but deserts and treeless areas of the United States, south into the mountains of Mexico. 

They are found primarily in mature deciduous woods, but also dry pine forests in the interior West. 

As with all nuthatches, these active little birds crawl over the trunk and limbs looking for bark insects. Their strong feet allow them to hang on to the bark in any position. You will frequently see them crawling head first down the tree or upside down around a branch. 

These birds are a bit smaller than House Sparrows. They are chunky birds with big heads on short necks. They have stumpy little tails. Their legs are strong and feet large. The bill is fairly slender and sharp pointed. 

They are blue-gray on the upper parts with black crown and hind neck. The upper parts, including the face, are white with rusty feathers in the vent area. Males are more blue on the upper parts and have blacker caps. Females are more gray and have paler caps. 

At your feeder White-breasted Nuthatches love suet and peanuts. They may take seeds from the feeder to cache away in the bark of trees to eat later in the winter.

Recommended Products for feeding birds in Iowa

A hopper feeder is just the right size and durable. The best high quality mixed bird seed for this bird feeder that I highly recommend is Wagner’s Songbird Supreme. This combination attracts the widest variety of feeder birds.

I really like how this iBorn copper tube feeder looks in my yard. It is best for finches and chickadees when filled with black oil sunflower seed.

For attracting woodpeckers and chickadees, and keeping out jays, starlings, and grackles, I love my Nature’s Way Upside-Down Suet Feeder. I also buy St. Albans Bay suet.

I’m using these Celestron Nature DX ED 8x40s almost exclusively now. I am impressed that such a low-priced binocular has such good image quality. Perfect for beginners! Yes, there are better binoculars at $500, $1000, $2000. But why? They’re not that much better.

Wrapping Up

Watching backyard birds in Iowa can be a rewarding and enriching experience for a variety of reasons:

Diversity and Beauty: Iowa boasts a diverse range of over 400 bird species, offering opportunities to observe stunning plumage, unique behaviors, and fascinating adaptations. From vibrant cardinals and colorful orioles to majestic hawks and delicate hummingbirds, there’s something for everyone to appreciate.

Connection to Nature: Birdwatching brings you closer to the natural world, allowing you to witness the intricate web of life in your own backyard. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of local ecosystems, seasonal changes, and the delicate balance of predator-prey relationships.

Relaxation and Mindfulness: Observing birds can be a calming and meditative experience. Focusing on their movements, sounds, and interactions provides a welcome escape from daily stress and promotes mindfulness.

Citizen Science: By sharing your bird sightings through platforms like eBird, you contribute valuable data to scientific research and conservation efforts. Your observations help track population trends, monitor the health of ecosystems, and inform wildlife management practices.

Educational Opportunity: Birdwatching is a lifelong learning experience, suitable for all ages. You can identify new species, learn about their unique characteristics, and discover fascinating facts about their behaviors and adaptations. It’s a fun and engaging way to educate yourself and others about the wonders of the natural world.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the most common bird in Iowa?

Determining the single “most common” bird in Iowa can be tricky, as it depends on how you define “common.” Here are some strong contenders depending on the measurement:

By individual sightings:

  • Mourning Dove: Their mournful call and widespread presence throughout the state make them highly observable.
  • American Robin: These familiar songbirds have large populations and adapt well to various habitats, making them common across Iowa.
  • House Sparrow: This introduced species readily utilizes bird feeders and urban areas, leading to frequent sightings.

By population density:

  • Yellow Warbler: These colorful songbirds breed abundantly in northern forests, contributing significantly to the overall bird population.
  • Song Sparrow: These adaptable songbirds thrive in various habitats across the state, leading to high population numbers.
  • Red-winged Blackbird: Found in marshes, fields, and even backyards, red-winged blackbirds are abundant and easily spotted.

By backyard feeders:

  • American Goldfinch: Their vibrant yellow plumage and attraction to thistle feeders make them frequent visitors to backyards.
  • House Finch: This introduced species readily utilizes bird feeders, making them common backyard visitors.
  • Downy Woodpecker: These small woodpeckers often visit feeders for suet and nuts, offering frequent sightings.
Downy Woodpecker by Imogen                     Warren

What birds stay in Iowa all year round?

Several bird species call Iowa home throughout the year, braving the state’s diverse seasons. Here are some common examples grouped by habitat:

Woodland dwellers:

  • Chickadees (Black-capped & Carolina): Energetic and acrobatic, chickadees flit through forests and backyards year-round, searching for seeds and insects.
  • Nuthatches (White-breasted & Red-breasted): Skilled climbers, nuthatches hammer trees for insects and nuts, remaining active even in snowy winters.
  • Cardinals: Their vibrant red plumage contrasts the snowy landscape, making them easily spotted year-round.
  • Woodpeckers (Downy & Hairy): These drumming birds hammer away at trees all year, searching for insects and larvae.

Open field & grassland birds:

  • Blue Jays: Bold and curious, these noisy birds stay in Iowa, defending their territories and scavenging for food.
  • American Crows: Highly intelligent and social, crows can be seen soaring above fields and gathering in large groups year-round.
  • Northern Flickers: These distinctive woodpeckers spend winters foraging on the ground for insects and berries.
  • Hawks (Red-tailed & Red-shouldered): These apex predators hunt small mammals and birds year-round, adapting their strategies to the changing seasons.

Wetland & water birds:

  • Mallards: These iconic ducks are a familiar sight on Iowa’s lakes and rivers, even during the coldest months.
  • Canada Geese: Loud and honking, Canada geese form large flocks that migrate within the state, remaining throughout the year.
  • Common Loons: These beautiful diving birds spend summers on lakes and migrate to open water within the state for winter.
  • Bald Eagles: Majestic symbols of America, bald eagles are now commonly seen year-round near open water, where they fish.
               Common Loon by John Picken

What bird is only found in Iowa?

Unfortunately, no bird species lives exclusively in Iowa. Every bird seen in the state also occurs in at least one other part of the world, although their range and abundance might vary significantly.

However, there are certain birds with restricted ranges that primarily reside in the Great Plains region, including Iowa. While not “exclusive” to Iowa, spotting them suggests you’re in a specific habitat within the Great Plains. Here are two examples:

  • Lark Bunting: This grassland specialist breeds primarily in the Great Plains and adjacent areas, with Iowa falling within its core breeding range. They are easily recognized by their black mask and yellow wing patches.
  • Dickcissel: This grassland songbird breeds mainly in the Great Plains and Midwest, including Iowa. Their distinctive “dick-cissel” call makes them readily identifiable.
                Lark Bunting by Nick Varvel

Links to other articles on this blog

Backyard Birds of Iowa

Red, Orange, & Yellow birds of Iowa

Setting up your bird feeder

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