How to Get Started With Backyard Birding: The Basics


If you want to get started with birdwatching, or “birding,” in your backyard, you’ll need a few basic things; food, water, and shelter. It really is that simple. However, knowing how to use those tools to attract birds is a little more involved. 

There are over 150 types of birds that are common to Des Moines. Many of them overwinter in Iowa, and they would be happy to stop by your backyard bird buffet. It’s a joyful moment for beginner “birders” when you start to recognize the visitors that frequent your property. On top of the warm feeling of getting to know your winged neighbors, you can also feel good about your role in their survival. All it takes is filling up feeders and refreshing their water now and then. 

Common Iowa backyard birds we’ll see in winter include chickadees, nuthatches, goldfinches, cardinals, mourning doves, blue jays, finches, titmice, and woodpeckers. Dark-eyed juncos, sparrows, and purple finches come south to Iowa for the winter. Occasionally, redpolls, grosbeaks, and pine siskins will make an appearance as well. So, how can you get all these cute feathery creatures to visit your yard? Here’s all you need to know to start attracting some feathered friends. 

birds at bird feeder

Food for Your Backyard Birds

Naturally, one of the main things that will attract birds to your yard is bird food—but don’t just grab the first bag of birdseed or the first feeder you come across! Different birds like different types of food. Some of the most popular things are nyjer seed, sunflower seeds, insects, peanuts, suet, berries, and fruits. 

Birds don’t like stale food, so if they’re not eating what you’ve put out, trying replacing it with fresh food. 

Setting up a Feeding Station

When you’re setting up a bird feeding station in your yard, you’ll want to make sure you choose a good location. There are three guidelines for perfect placement:

  1. Protected: somewhere that’s protected from the wind, and that will get some sun, the south side of your house is best.
  2. Safe Exits: birds need a safe escape, and somewhere to hide, so within 10-15 feet of a tree or shrubs is ideal.
  3. Visible: If you’re going to enjoy these birds, make sure you can easily see your feeding station from your windows.

Lots of birds don’t like to share their outdoor bird feeders, and some prefer different types of feeders, so you may want to have a few different styles. A tall round feeder with big enough holes for peanuts will be popular with woodpeckers. Something with edges to sit on and a roof over the top will be popular with sparrows. A skinny feeder with a perch by each feeding hole will be popular with chickadees. Some birds also prefer to eat from the ground, so you could provide a tray underneath your feeders that will catch dropped seed for ground feeders. You can also spread seed on an old stump for some of your birds. Suet can be hung in cages from trees.

Most backyard birds are generally ok with being reasonably close to buildings, so you can keep the feeders within 10-15 feet of the house for best visibility. There are bird feeder stands available that allow you to hang up to 4 feeders from the same post, offering lots of choices for your bird friends. 

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Offering Birds a Water Source

Like us, birds need to drink water, even in winter. Also, it’s a myth that birds will have a bath, soak their feathers, and then freeze to death on horrible icy days. Birds are smarter than that; they know how to keep themselves safe and warm.

Birdbaths are easy enough to maintain in summer, but keeping open water through the winter is a little more tricky. A heated dog dish is one of the most affordable options for keeping water available. Or, you can get a heater disk to add to an existing birdbath

The water shouldn’t be more than 1-2 inches deep, so you’ll want to find a reasonably large rock to place in the middle of the dish. Many birds will be happy standing on the rock, but some prefer twigs or branches. If you have spruce boughs available, you can place some of those around the outside edge of the water dish, so little birds have somewhere to sit.

It’s important to make sure the water is clean. Because birds tend to relieve themselves wherever they are, you’ll want to clean out the water dish and refill it with fresh water about once a week.

bird on branch

Somewhere to Shelter

The best backyard bird garden will have lots of places for birds to take shelter. A variety of shrubs and trees, evergreens and deciduous, will make your yard inviting for birds all year round. Shrubs and trees with berries—like dogwood, chokeberry, winterberry, hawthorn, and holly—are popular with a wide variety of birds. 

If you’ve got birdhouses up in your yard, you can clean them out for winter, but don’t put them away. Some birds will still use them to take cover through extra frigid nights.

Dealing with Squirrels

If you’ve got trees and shrubs and bird feeders, there’s a good chance you have squirrels. They can be a pest, but they’re also not the worst creature on the planet. There are plenty of excellent squirrel-proof feeders on the market that can make it more difficult for them to steal bird food. But, since squirrels are very intelligent, they’re likely to figure out a way eventually. 

Generally, the best and most humane solution to keep squirrels out of your bird feeders is to let them have their own feeding station somewhere else in your yard. A cheap feeder stocked with nyjer or sunflower seeds will keep them busy and mostly away from your bird feeding station.

image of bird sticker on window

The Window Problem

It’s always sad when a bird hits the window. However, there are easy solutions to keep them from mistaking your glass for open skies. Reflective stickers or tape are great options, but you’ll find more products to prevent bird-to-window collisions at our garden center.

Once you get started with backyard birding you’ll enjoy observing these delightful creatures all winter. When your feeders are all set up, make sure to keep your camera or phone handy—you never know who might visit your bird buffet!


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