Birdwatching is an excellent outdoor winter activity. There are more winter birds in Iowa than you might think! Whether you attract them with a birdfeeder or take a hike to spot them, winter is an excellent time for birdwatching in Iowa.
Many species seen during the warmer months move south for the winter. But for some birds, Iowa is south of their summer homes.
Also, around 20% of Iowa birds overwinter here.1 Birds that eat seeds, dormant insects, and small mammals can tolerate Iowa winters. They use layers of feathers for warmth and eat as much as possible for survival.
Iowa Winter Bird Watching
In an Iowa winter, you can spot songbirds, jays and crows, owls, woodpeckers, birds of prey, and upland fowl. Even some species that sometimes migrate south in winter occasionally overwinter in Iowa.
Birds that overwinter in Iowa look a bit different than they did in the summer. Birds shed old feathers and replace them with new ones (called molting), often before the cold moves in. For example, the Goldfinch looks more green than gold in the winter!
What to bring
Here are some suggestions for things to bring on your winter birdwatching excursions!
Binoculars! Many birds will fly away if you get too close. It’s much easier to see and identify birds with binoculars.
Field Guide or app. The best time to identify a bird is when you see it. I don’t know about you, but I can try to remember bird markings. But I usually don’t remember enough to make a definite ID. Carrying a field guide, or using an app, solves this problem.
Warm layers and good shoes. A base, insulating, and protective layer will help you stay dry and warm (don’t forget a hat and gloves). Add in a pair of waterproof shoes with good traction, and you’re ready to go!
What to look for: Common Iowa winter birds
Where to see Iowa winter birds
Where can you see these birds? Well, that depends on the type of birds you want to see.
Many winter songbirds like the protection they get from brushy areas and conifers. And they feed on seeds, nuts, and berries. So, you’ll see the most variety on a hike in the woods!
To spot turkey, hawks, and owls, open fields surrounded by wooded areas are ideal. So, prairies, farm fields, and clearings in the woodlands are great places to look.
Makoke Trail is a birding trail in Central Iowa that highlights the best places to birdwatch within 30 miles of Des Moines. See this PDF from the Iowa Ornithologists’ Union for more on the Makoke Trail and birds to look for in each area.
Viewing Bald Eagles
Bald Eagles are easy to spot around Iowa rivers, especially where the water isn’t frozen (like below dams). They’re enjoyable to watch in the winter, as they use their talons to grab fish from the openings in the ice. For more on watching Bald Eagles in Iowa, see the Iowa DNR Bald Eagle page.
Locally, you can spot Bald Eagles along the Des Moines River in downtown Des Moines! And Des Moines Parks and Rec sometimes host pop-up events for watching the bald eagles. You can also check out Saylorville Lake.
Red Rock Reservoir is another popular place to see eagles not far from Des Moines. Also, many bald eagles live along the Mississippi River – Lock & Dam 19 in Keokuk, Pikes Peak, and the Davenport/Bettendorf area have good viewing opportunities.
Birds will go where there is food, water, and shelter. If you provide this, they will come! So if you don’t want to leave the warmth and comfort of your home, birdfeeders are the answer. Since birds feed continuously in winter, you can easily attract them to feeders. You’ll often see chickadees, nuthatches, finches, sparrows, and woodpeckers at feeders.
For more variety, offer different types of seeds and nuts in your feeders. But if you want to stick with one kind of seed, the Iowa Association of Naturalists recommends black sunflower. It’s cheap and enjoyed by several species of winter birds.
Signs of spring
In February, listen for the hooo-hooo of the Great Horned owls, the Cardinals’ song, and pigeons coo. These signal the coming of spring. Killdeer and geese begin coming back to Iowa. And in March, sparrows and other Eastern Phoebes make their appearance. From then on, a steady migration of all the warm-weather species move back. These are the welcome sounds and sites of warmer months to come.
Learn more about winter bird watching in Iowa
Below are some excellent resources for you to learn more about winter birding. Of course, one way to know where to see those rare winter birds is to find out where other birders are spotting them. The Iowa Ornithologists’ Union is an excellent resource for just that. Enjoy!
- Birds of Iowa: Winter from the Bird Watcher’s Digest
- Iowa Winter Birds from the Iowa Association of Naturalists
- The Ultimate Guide to Winter Bird Watching in Iowa from the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation
1. Winter Birds of Iowa. University of Iowa Museum of Natural History.