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Get Rec’d: A quick guide to birdwatching in eastern Iowa


Eastern Bluebird — Norbert Sarsfield/Little Village

2020 has been a fraught and fractious year. It seems like every morning we wake to find ourselves beset by a new calamity demanding our full attention. While it is our duty as decent human beings and good citizens to be informed and to put our minds and bodies to the task of creating a safe, just society, we can’t accomplish that work if we are exhausted, anxious and stressed out.

A remedy for this malady is to step away for a bit and connect with nature through birdwatching.

You can watch birds from your own window by putting up a feeder. Suet feeders will attract woodpeckers and nuthatches; thistle feeders will bring finches and chickadees; and seed feeders will appeal to a wide range of birds. To discourage house sparrows, which are an invasive species that displaces native birds like bluebirds, avoid seed mixes that include millet and instead consider using safflower seeds.

A great way to learn how to ID birds is with the Merlin Bird ID app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It is free, easy to use and has a great collection of bird photos and audio of bird songs and calls.

An even better way to reap the rewards of birdwatching is to get outdoors and immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of nature. This can have real therapeutic benefits; simply standing still in a natural area, being in the moment, aware of the songs of birds as they flit about in a nearby bush, can be a powerful mindfulness exercise. Thankfully, there are a number of wonderful natural areas in our region with great birdwatching opportunities.

In the immediate Iowa City area, Hickory Hill Park, Waterworks Prairie Park, Terry Trueblood Recreation Area and the Sycamore Greenway Trail are all wonderful places for birding. A little farther afield, Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area, Macbride Nature Recreation Area (home of the Iowa Raptor Project) and Kent Park are all highly recommended. You might also consider joining the Iowa City Bird Club, a local group that leads birding field trips (these are currently on hold due to COVID-19) and helps to conserve bird habitat.

Whether in your own yard or in a local natural area, bird watching offers a great way to get outside in a safe, socially distant manner. Enjoy!

American Goldfinch

American goldfinch — Norbert Sarsfield/Little Village

Iowa’s state bird. A year-round resident, but it is only in the spring and summer when adult males take on their distinctive bright yellow and dark black coloration. Frequents fields, roadsides and thistle feeders.

Barred Owl

Barred owl — Norbert Sarsfield/Little Village

Common owl in Iowa City’s Hickory Hill Park and other areas with large, mature trees. Listen for its distinctive “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” call.

Brown-Headed Cowbird

Brown-headed cowbird — Norbert Sarsfield/Little Village

Iowa’s only parasitic bird, it lays its eggs in the nests of other bird species and allows them to incubate the eggs and raise the young cowbirds.

Purple Martin

Purple Martin — Norbert Sarsfield/Little Village

Spring and summer resident of Iowa. The pond at Waterworks Prairie Park has a well-established Purple Martin house that offers great viewing opportunities.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied woodpecker — Norbert Sarsfield/Little Village

One of several species of woodpeckers in Iowa, it nests in tree cavities. Will visit backyard suet feeders.

Red-Winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird, male — Norbert Sarsfield/Little Village
Red-winged Blackbird, female — Norbert Sarsfield/Little Village

Loud, aggressive bird of fields and marshes. Males have distinct red and yellow patches on their wings, females are streaked brown and resemble a large sparrow.

Rose-Breasted Grosbeak

Rosebreasted grosbeak, male– Norbert Sarsfield/Little Village
Rosebreasted grosbeak, female — Norbert Sarsfield/Little Village

Spends spring and summer in Iowa and winters in Central and South America. Large bill allows it to eat a variety of seeds; will visit backyard seed feeders.

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted titmouse — Norbert Sarsfield/Little Village

A personal favorite for its loud, clear song. Small grey bird with white chest and a subtle touch of burnt sienna under its wing.

White-Breasted Nuthatch

Whitebreasted nuthatch — Norbert Sarsfield/Little Village

Often seen working its way up and down tree trunks; often visits feeders. Has a distinct annoyed, nasal vocalization.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 284.


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