How to Bring Birds to Your Backyard Garden in Iowa

Updated: Mar 20

The wonderful Museum of the Grand Prairie in neighboring Illinois hosted a great online talk the other night about how to design your backyard to support birds. You can watch the full, hour-long talk here (the talk begins around 9 minutes and 30 seconds into the recording). The talk inspired me to pull together some resources here on how to support native bird populations through our very own backyards.


In addition to the video from Grand Prairie, there is also a great video from Iowa State University on using native plants to support birds, which you can watch below. Iowa State also has a great, printable 10-page guide on attracting birds to your yard, which you can view here. On this page I summarize some of the key points from both the Grand Prairie talk and the Iowa State guide. I plan to update this page occasionally as I find new information or resources.


Key Points

  • Provide food through plantings of natives; seed, fruit, or nectar producing plants or by providing the right types of feeders during each season.

  • Integrate water sources into landscapes with bird baths, water drips, or small ponds.

  • Create places to provide shelter to raise young, to escape predators, or stay warm in dense shrubs, grasses, wildflowers, or nest boxes.

  • Structure landscaping to create a layered-effect using native trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers: tall trees along the perimeter, descending to shorter trees, shrubs, and then to grasses and flowers.

While using bird feeders to attract birds is great (and helps fatten them up for winter and migration), a more helpful and sustainable method of attracting and helping birds is to give them an environment they can thrive in.


That means making your yard work with nature instead of against it with lots of places to shelter (trees, dead wood, nesting boxes, etc), plenty of food (from native trees, shrubs, and flowers—and from the insects that live off of those plants), and providing water sources through bird baths or other sources.


If you also want to use bird feeders (which are great!), check out page 8 of the Iowa state bird guide.

Why Mowing Less Is Important for Birds

Mow Less, Landscape More


Lawns are great and useful, but many people have much more yard than they need, and they waste countless hours mowing and fertilizing the lawns to keep them just perfect. To best help birds (and save yourself time), decide how much useable lawn you actually need, and convert the rest to beautiful and interesting landscaping that is attractive to birds. Native flowers, shrubs, and trees provide food and shelter for birds, while a lawn provides nothing.


The National Wildlife Federation has a succinct two page guide to why lawn reduction is so important (and easy!), and some steps on how to get started. The Iowa State bird guide also shows several examples of how this can be done.


Best Iowa Trees for Birds

Many native Iowa hardwoods provide great cover, housing, and breeding grounds for birds, including oaks, hickories, locust, tulip trees, persimmon, chestnut, hackberry, and cherry. Some trees are less helpful for birds, including ash, maples, and elm. Avoid planting too many of these three species if planting for birds is your primary goal.


Some specific recommended species for birds in Iowa include:

  • Pawpaw Asimina triloba- Small tree, food for wildlife, attracts zebra swallowtail butterfly

  • Pecan Carya illinoinensis- large tree, wildlife food

  • American Chestnut Castanea dentata- large tree, seeds collected in Illinois

  • Sugar hackberry (Celtis laevigata- large tree, fruit for birds

  • Persimmon Diospyros virginiana- medium sized tree, fruit for birds

  • Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera- large tree, pollinated by bees

  • Swamp White Oak Quercus bicolor- large tree, acorns for wildlife

  • Overcup Oak Querycus lyrata- large tree, wildlife

  • Dward Chestnut Oak Quercus prinoides- sweet edible nuts, birds, and mammals

  • American Basswood Tilia americana- flowers attract bees and other pollinators


Best Iowa Shrubs for Birds

  • American plum (Prunus americana)

  • Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum)

  • Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium)

  • Chokeberry (Aronia spp.)

  • Common chokecherry (Prunus virginia)

  • Crabapple (Malus spp.)

  • Elderberry (Sambucus spp.)

  • Gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa)

  • Hazelnut (Corylus americana)

  • Highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum)

  • Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago)

  • Ninebark (Physocarpus abolifolius)

  • Red-osier dogwood (Cornus sericea)

  • Serviceberry (Amerlachier spp.)

  • Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum)

  • Viburnums (Viburnum spp.)


Best Native Flowers and Grasses for Birds

There are hundreds and hundreds of native flowers that attract birds (either directly attracting them or attracting the insects birds like to eat). A full list would be difficult to navigate, but below are a few great and beautiful options that I particularly like. You can also browse a handy native plant book or use a tool like the the Audobon Native Plants search tool, which lets you browse native trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers by your zip code, complete with great photos!

  • Blazing star (Liatris spp.)

  • Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

  • Coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.)

  • Orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)

  • Purple coneflower (Echinacea spp.)

  • Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

  • Wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum)

  • Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)

  • Indiangrass (Sorgastrum nutans)

  • Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)

  • Side-oats gramma (Bouteloua curtipedula)

  • Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)


In General: Work with Nature, Don't Fight It

The yard design on the left is probably what many of our yards look like. A lot of lawn and a few trees. This sort of yard design requires a lot of work on our part, and is very unnatural and unsupportive for birds, butterflies, and all sorts of beautiful and beneficial wildlife.


The design on the right, while requiring more work up front to build, requires less maintenance and is far more attractive and useful to birds. It's an example of working with nature to create useable spaces for us humans and for wildlife like birds, instead of fighting nature to create something stale and lifeless like a huge, barren yard.


Finally, invite and encourage your neighbors! Each yard that embraces nature and provides habitat for native birds supports bird populations, and makes birds more likely to visit your house.

Books on Supporting and Identifying Backyard Birds

The Native Plant Primer book below lists 225 beautiful native plants and identifies which ones are best for birds and the insects they eat. Once your backyard is all set up and bird-friendly, the bird guides are very handy at identifying what bird friends are visiting. A fun project for the whole family!


Purchases made through the links below help support Iowa Native Plants and a fund that support local bookstores. Learn more here.