Top 20 Backyard Winter Birds in Iowa

White throated sparrow

Winter is a great time to see birds as it can be easier to spot them amongst the bare branches. Also, some birds only visit Iowa in winter, so will you be lucky enough to see them in your backyard?

These birds appear most frequently on Iowa bird checklists on ebird between December and February.

Top 20 Backyard Winter Birds of Iowa:

  1. Dark-eyed Junco 50%
  2. Black-capped Chickadee 47%
  3. Northern Cardinal 46%
  4. Downy Woodpecker 44%
  5. White-breasted Nuthatch 37%
  6. American Crow 36%
  7. Red-bellied Woodpecker 36%
  8. House Sparrow 36%
  9. Blue Jay 35%
  10. European Starling 26%
  11. American Goldfinch 25%
  12. House Finch 23%
  13. American Tree Sparrow 19%
  14. Hairy Woodpecker 18%
  15. Mourning Dove 17%
  16. Tufted Titmouse 12%
  17. American Robin 10%
  18. Rock Pigeon 9%
  19. Northern Flicker 8%
  20. White-throated Sparrow 6%

Get Free Printable, with pictures of the backyard birds in Iowa throughout the year, to create your own tally:

Some birds migrate and spend the summer in the north, breeding and then flying south for the winter to warmer climates. Some remain residents all year, and some come into the state for the winter.

Dark-eyed Junco, American Tree-sparrow, and White-throated Sparrows are birds that you can only spot in winter in Iowa.

Birds that have migrated out of Iowa and headed south for the winter include House Wren, Gray Catbird, Baltimore Oriole, Common Yellowthroat, and Indigo Bunting.

Read on to learn more about these most commonly spotted birds in winter backyards in Iowa.

Top 20 Backyard Winter Birds Iowa

1. Dark-eyed Junco

Dark eyed junco for identification

Dark-eyed Juncos are known as ‘snow birds’ and are only spotted in Iowa in winter, between October and May.

Dark-eyed Juncos are sparrows that are different colors depending on the state.  They are generally slate-colored in the east and black, white, and brown in the west.

They can be found in open and partially wooded areas, often on the ground, and are common across the continent. Some remain resident all year in the west and the Appalachian Mountains.  Those that breed in Canada and Alaska migrate south in winter to much of the United States.

Juncos prefer to feed near the ground, and it’s best to keep ground feeders away from shrubs where cats and predators can hide, so this covered feeder is great for keeping out the elements. A budget-friendly alternative that allows rain to drain out is this simple platform feeder.

You can attract more Dark-eyed Juncos to backyard feeders with a variety of seeds such as black oil sunflower seeds, nyjer, cracked corn, millet, and peanuts.  Platform feeders or scattered on the ground are best.

2. Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadees can be spotted all year in Iowa.

Black-capped Chickadees are cute birds with big round heads and tiny bodies. These birds will happily feed at backyard feeders and will investigate everything, including you! 

Black-capped Chickadees have black caps and beaks, white cheeks, and are gray on the back, wings, and tail. They can be found in forests, open woods and parks.

Chickadees will grab a seed and go to a perch to open and eat them. Stopping bigger bully birds or squirrels from plundering your feeders and enjoying flocks of chickadees brightening up your day is easily solved with the Woodlink Caged feeder that is super easy to clean.  This Upside Down Suet Feeder helps the little guys get some winter fuel in winter.

To attract more Black-capped Chickadees to your backyard, try suet, sunflower seeds, and peanuts or peanut butter. They will even feed from your hand and are often one of the first birds to discover new feeders. They will also use nest boxes, especially if you fill them with wood shavings.

3. Northern Cardinal

Northern cardinal male and female for identification

Northern Cardinals are common all year in Iowa.

The bright red male Northern Cardinal with black around their faces is a great sight, especially against a white winter background.  The females are also a little showy with their brown coloring, sharp brown crest, red highlights, and red beaks.

Northern Cardinals will sometimes attack their own reflection during breeding season as they obsessively defend their territories.

Cardinals are heavy birds with quite large beaks, so they need a suitable hopper feeder or feeder with a big enough area for them to perch. The Woodlink Absolute feeder is very sturdy, and cardinals love this feeder as they have a big enough area to perch without tipping the feeder as with lightweight feeders.  This is also squirrel proof which is always a bonus.

You can attract more Northern Cardinals to backyard feeders with sunflower seeds, peanut hearts, millet, and milo. They will feed from large tube feeders, hoppers, platform feeders, or food scattered on the ground.

4. Downy Woodpecker

Downy woodpecker

Downy Woodpeckers are common all year in Iowa.

Downy Woodpeckers are small birds that are common at backyard feeders.  They are often mixed in with other birds, such as chickadees and nuthatches. Woodpeckers are often seen at feeders in winter.

They have black and white coloring with a red patch at the back of their heads.  They look similar to the Hairy Woodpecker but smaller.

Downy woodpeckers can be found in woodlots, along streams, city parks, and backyards, and eat mainly insects, beetle larvae, berries, acorns, and grains.

An upside-down suet feeder is excellent for smaller woodpeckers such as Downy Woodpeckers as they offer protection from the rain and help stop bully birds.  A bulk pack of suet cakes is a more economical way of buying them.

Also, black oil sunflower seeds attract more Downy Woodpeckers to your yard, and if you combine them with suet in a great combination suet and hopper feeder, then you get two feeders in one.

To attract more Downy Woodpeckers to your backyard, try suet feeders, but they will also eat black oil sunflower seeds, millet, and peanuts on platform feeders.

5. White-breasted Nuthatch

White breasted nuthatch for identification

White-breasted Nuthatches can be spotted all year in Iowa, but more commonly in winter.

White-breasted Nuthatches are active little birds that are gray-blue on the back and white on the face and belly, with a black cap.

They jam large nuts and acorns into tree bark and then whack them with their bills to open or ‘hatch’ them to get the seed out.

Nuthatches love black oil sunflower seeds, and this Droll Yankees feeder makes it so easy to clean, stopping food from going moldy and making birds ill.

You can attract more White-breasted Nuthatches to your backyard with sunflower seeds and peanuts on tube feeders or suet feeders.

6. American Crow

American Crow for identification

American Crows are common all year in Iowa.

American crows are large all-black birds that make a hoarse, cawing sound. They are common birds that can be found in most habitats, including treetops, woods, fields, beaches, or towns.

They eat most things and usually feed on the ground, eating earthworms, insects, seeds, and fruit. They also eat fish, young turtles, mussels, and clams and will even eat eggs and nestlings of many species of birds.

American Crows gather in large numbers of up to two million crows in winter to sleep in communal roosts.

You can attract more American Crows to your backyard by scattering peanuts but can become a nuisance as attracted by garbage or pet food if left out.

7. Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are common all year in Iowa.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers have a pale red belly that can be difficult to spot, with a red cap and nape and black-and-white stripped back. They are a similar size as a Hairy Woodpecker at around 9 inches.

In spring and summer, they make a loud call and are found in woods and forests, especially with deadwood in eastern states. Red-bellied Woodpeckers eat mainly insects and spiders, but they also eat acorns, nuts and pine cones, and some seeds and fruits.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers will come to backyards for suet, so try an upside-down suet feeder that can help stop squirrels and bully birds. These suet cakes come in a cheaper bulk pack.

Also, black oil sunflower seeds attract more Red-bellied Woodpeckers to your yard, and if you combine them with suet in a great combination suet and hopper feeder then you get two feeders in one. 

They can also be seen on hummingbird feeders and will feed on fruit.  Planting native berry trees such as hawthorn or mountain-ash will also help to attract more of these birds.

8. House Sparrow

House sparrow for identification

House Sparrows are common all year in Iowa.

The House Sparrow is another introduced species that has done very well and is now one of the most common birds. They are found near houses and buildings and can be quite tame, so they may eat out of your hand.

They can be considered a pest as they are non-native, but they will be found in backyards even if you do not feed them.

Small birds need a feeder that stops bigger ‘bully’ birds such as starlings, grackles, and blackbirds from taking all your bird feed and scaring off the small songbirds. Tube feeders with cages are essential in your feeder setup.

You can attract more House Sparrows to your backyard feeders with most kinds of birdseed, including millet, corn, and sunflower seeds.

9. Blue Jay

Blue Jay for identification

Blue Jays are can be spotted all year in Iowa.

Blue Jays are common large songbirds with a blue upright crest, blue and black backs, and white undersides. 

They are noisy birds that travel in family groups eating acorns when available. Mostly resident but may migrate from the far northwest of US and can migrate in large flocks along the Great Lakes and Atlantic coast.

They can be found in forests, mainly near oak, as they eat acorns. They can also be found in backyards near feeders.  As well as acorns, they eat insects, nuts and seeds, and grain. They may also take eggs from nests or take nestlings.

Blue Jays are large birds and prefer to fly in, grab a peanut or sunflower seed and take it away to feed.  They prefer platform or tray feeders to make it easy to make a quick exit. This Woodlink Audubon Platform Feeder can be either hung, pole-mounted, or placed on the ground and has a mesh screen on the bottom to allow for rain drainage, which is essential to stop feed from going moldy.

Try peanuts, sunflower seeds, and suet to attract more Blue Jays to your backyard, but they prefer these on tray feeders or hopper feeders on a post.  They will also enjoy a birdbath.

10. European Starling

European Starlings can be spotted all year in Iowa.

European Starlings are not native but are now one of the most numerous songbirds.  They are stocky black birds with iridescent purple, green, and blue tones. 

Considered a pest by some due to their aggressive behavior, these birds fly in large, noisy flocks and can be seen perched in groups on the top of trees or flying over fields in flocks. Tube feeders with cages are essential in your feeder set up to stop European Starlings from dominating your feeders, and the Woodlink Caged feeder is super easy to clean and is a perfect feeder for small birds to fly through and leave the starlings out.

You can attract more European Starlings to your backyard feeders with black oil sunflower seeds, suet, cracked corn, and peanuts.

11. American Goldfinch

American goldfinch male

American Goldfinch are common all year in Iowa. However, they are spotted more in the summer.

American Goldfinches are popular birds with the males bright yellow and black coloring in spring.  The females are duller brown, as are males in winter.

American Goldfinches breed in far northern states and Canada before migrating to southern states. They remain all year in the rest of the US.

They can be found in weedy fields and overgrown areas foraging for sunflower, thistle, and aster plants. They are also common in suburbs, parks, and backyards.

Goldfinches often travel in flocks, and to get a swarm of them fly-in is a sight you need to create.  This is made possible with this Droll Yankees flocker feeder that has a staggering 20 ports to really get the party going.

To attract more American Goldfinches to your backyard, try planting thistles and milkweed.  They will visit most bird feeders and prefer sunflower seed and nyjer seed. 

12. House Finch

house finch male

House Finches can be spotted all year in Iowa.

House Finches have a red head and breast in the males and brown-streaked coloring in the females.  Originally only in western states, it was introduced to the eastern states and has done very well, even pushing out the Purple Finch.

They can be found in parks, farms, forest edges, and backyard feeders. They can be found in noisy groups that are hard to miss.

Nyjer seeds are a favorite food of finches, and this easy clean finch feeder from Droll Yankees ensures your wild birds stay healthy.

You can attract more House Finches to backyard feeders with black oil sunflower seeds or nyjer seeds in tube feeders or platform feeders.

13. American Tree Sparrow

American tree sparrow

American Tree sparrows are winter birds in Iowa and can be spotted here between October and May.

American Tree sparrows are long-tailed brown-streaked plump birds with rusty caps, gray faces, and a rusty eyeliner. 

American Tree Sparrows are a bird of winter in the US and a bird of summer in Canada.

They breed in the far north of Canada and in Alaska and migrate to most US states for the winter, except the Pacific Coast and Gulf Coast.

They forage in small flocks in weedy fields and under bird feeders.

You can attract more American Tree Sparrows to your backyard platform feeders with black oil sunflower seeds, nyjer, cracked corn, and millet.  They also feed off the ground under tube feeders foraging for seeds dropped or discarded from above.

14. Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy woodpecker

Hairy Woodpeckers although not very common they can be spotted all year in Iowa.

Hairy Woodpeckers are medium-sized woodpeckers with a black and white pattern and a large white patch on their backs. The males have a flash of red towards the back of their heads.

Hairy Woodpeckers are visually similar to the Downy woodpecker but larger, and they have a longer bill.  As they are often found in the same areas, it is hard to tell them apart.

They can be found across all US states and most of Canada and into Mexico. They can be seen on backyard feeders and are powerful small birds that make a whinnying sound or explosive peak calls.

Hairy Woodpeckers’ diet is mostly insects such as beetle larvae, ants, and bark beetles, but they will also eat bees, caterpillars, spiders, moth pupae, and millipedes.

This Woodpecker nests in the cavities of dead trees or dead parts of trees and lay between 3-6 white eggs.

15. Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove

Mourning Doves can be spotted all year in Iowa, but they are more commonly spotted in summer.

Mourning Doves are graceful small-headed birds, plump bodies and long tails. They are a soft brown with black spots on the wings.

They can be seen perching on telephone wires and foraging for seeds on the ground in grasslands, fields, and backyards. Mourning Doves can be found in open areas or on the edge of woodland. Mourning Doves are common over all of the lower 48 all year but may migrate after breeding from the far north.

Doves prefer to feed near the ground, and it’s best to keep ground feeders away from shrubs where cats and predators can hide, so this covered feeder is great for keeping out the elements. This simple platform feeder is a budget-friendly alternative that allows rain to drain out.

You can attract more Mourning Doves to your backyard by scattering millet on the ground or platform feeders. They will also eat black sunflower seeds, nyjer, cracked corn, and peanut hearts.

16. Tufted Titmouse

Tufted titmouse

Tufted Titmouse are not very common in Iowa, but they can be spotted all year.

The Tufted Titmouse is gray on the back and white underneath with a cute gray crest and large eyes that often flock with chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers.

They can be assertive over smaller birds and are found in woodlands, parks, and at backyard feeders.

You can attract Tufted Titmouses to your backyard feeders with sunflower seeds, suet, and peanuts on tube feeders or suet cages.  They will also eat from platform feeders or hopper feeders. This Woodlink Hopper Feeder is not only squirrel-proof but protects the seed from rain and is really sturdy, making it last a long time. Tufted Titmice also prefer suet feeders with tail props to balance their long tails on.

17. American Robin

American Robin for identification

American Robins are common all year in Iowa, but they are spotted more often in the summer.

American Robins are a common sight on lawns eating earthworms.  They have black heads and backs with red or orange breasts.  They tend to roost in trees in winter, so you are more likely to see them in your backyard from spring.

American robins do not regularly visit feeders, although they are common in backyards. Providing a habitat with lots of insects is the best way to encourage them, but they sometimes eat sunflower seeds, suet and peanut hearts, fruit, and mealworms on platform feeders on the ground.

18. Rock Pigeon

Rock Pigeon

Rock Pigeons can be spotted all year in Iowa.

Rock Pigeons are blueish gray with two black bands on the wing and black on the tail tip. They have iridescent throat feathers and orange eyes.

They are common in cities but also visit backyards to find food on the ground. Some cities have ordinances against feeding pigeons as they are considered pests.

19. Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker

Northern Flickers are not very commonly spotted in Iowa, but they can be seen all year.

Northern Flickers are large woodpeckers, between the size of a robin and a crow, with brownish coloring and black spots, bars, and crescents and red on the nape.  The undersides of tail and wing feathers are bright yellow in eastern birds and red in western birds.

They can be found on the ground looking for ants and beetles in woods or forest edges. Those that breed in Canada or Alaska migrate to southern states, but otherwise, they can be found all year over the lower 48.

You can attract more Northern Flickers to your backyard feeders with suet and black oil sunflower seeds.

20. White-throated Sparrow

White throated sparrow

White-throated Sparrows are winter birds in Iowa and can be spotted between October and May. They are most commonly spotted during the migration in May and October additional birds swelling their numbers.

White-throated Sparrows have a distinctive black and white striped head, bright white throat, and yellow between the eye and bill.  Their backs are brown and underneath is gray.

White-throated Sparrows are migratory birds, breeding mostly in Canada before heading south in winter to Eastern and Southern States and the Pacific Coast.

You can find White-throated Sparrows on the ground in forests and woods and along the edges of wooded areas, often in large flocks.

White-throated Sparrows diet is mainly seeds of grasses and weeds as well as fruits such as grape, sumac, mountain ash, blueberry, blackberry, and dogwood. They will also eat a large number of insects from the forest floor, especially in summer.

You can attract White-throated Sparrows to your backyard feeders with millet and black oil sunflower seeds on platform feeders.

How to Attract Birds to Your Backyard in Iowa

If you would like to attract more birds to your yard in Iowa, here are some tips:

  1. Provide bird feeders for different types of birds to get the most species to visit your yard.
  2. Provide a water feature such as a birdbath fountain or stream.  Ensure that the water is clean and not stagnant and in winter a heated birdbath helps prevent ice build-up.
  3.  Grow native plants that will provide food and shelter. Plants, trees, and shrubs that provide fruit, berries, and nuts. Blackberries, wild grasses, elderberries, serviceberries, Oaks, Beeches, Cherries, sumacs, hemlocks, Purple Coneflowers, Sunflowers, Milkweed, Cardinal Flowers, Trumpet Honeysuckle, Virginia Creeper, Buttonbush, and Dogwoods.
  4. Let your grass grow long to provide cover and seeds.
  5. Leave a brush pile to provide food, protection, and nesting opportunities for birds.
  6. Don’t use pesticides and herbicides as these may be toxic to birds and prevent the natural foraging opportunities for insects and seeds that birds will seek in your yard.
  7. Set up nest boxes to attract breeding birds and ensure they are cleaned every year.

How to Identify Birds

Here are some more tips to help you identify birds, whether you choose to go out birding or stay home bird watching in Iowa:

  1. Size – Size is the easiest thing to notice about a bird.  Birds are often measured in inches or centimeters in guide books.  It’s best to take a note of the bird in terms of small, medium, or large to be able to look for it later. A small bird is about the size of a sparrow, a medium bird is about the size of a pigeon and a large bird is the size of a goose.
  2. Shape – Take note of the silhouette of the bird and jot it down or draw the outline.  Look at tail length, bill shape, wing shape, and overall body shape.
  3. Color pattern – Take a note of the main color of the head, back, belly, and wings, and tail for the main color and then any secondary colors or patterns. Also take note of any patterns such as banding, spots, or highlights.
  4. Behavior – Are they on the ground or high up in the trees. Are they in flocks or on their own?  Can you spot what they are eating?
  5. Habitat – Woodlands, parks, shrubs, grasslands or meadows, shore or marsh.
  6. Use a bird identification app such as those created by ebird or Audubon