Iowa’s state symbols

Peering out the window of the Dickinson County Nature Center, I can see birds at the feeders in the avian courtyard.

One of them is a brilliant yellow color with black wings, and it is right at home here. That’s because the American goldfinch is the state bird of Iowa.

Did you know that Iowa has four state symbols? The state bird, the state flower — the wild rose, the state rock — the geode, and the state tree — the oak. Let’s learn a little about each of these state symbols.


Iowa’s state bird — American goldfinch

American goldfinches live year-round in Iowa, although their coloring is muted in the wintertime when no breeding behaviors are occurring. They are common feeder visitors and have a short, strong beak that is well-designed for breaking open seed shells. They are known to love thistle seed, and you may even see them perched on a thistle plant in the wild, but they also eat seeds from asters, goldenrod and even dandelions.

(Tell apart finches at your feeder)

Goldfinches are noisy birds, singing while perched or while flying, and they will even sing together as a group. You might hear “po-TA-to-chip” or “per-CHICK-o-ree” or the male’s breeding call “dear-me, see-me.”

wild rose

Iowa’s state flower — wild rose

There are actually different species of wild roses (Rosa spp.), but no official species was ever chosen for the state symbol. However, the wild prairie rose (Rosa setigera) is most often used in pictures.

Wild roses grow in open woodlands, woodland edges, prairie and roadside ditches and have pink or pinkish-purple flowers with yellow centers. They bloom from June-September.

With cultivated roses in nurseries, thorns are a big concern, but with wild roses rose thorns are more noticeable on the largest, woody stems whereas some species actually have very few thorns.

Wild rose is a healthy plant for humans and for wildlife. The bushes are wonderful habitat for small mammals and birds, and the leaves, flowers, fruit and young shoots are all edible. Rose fruit, called rose hips, are a good source of Vitamin C and are actually sold in health food stores for human consumption.

the inside of a geode

Iowa’s state rock — geode

The word geode means “earth-like” in Latin and is so named because of its round or ovular shape that looks like a planet. Iowa geodes are usually small and have a hard, gray outer surface. When you crack them open, about 80 percent are lined with crystals of amethyst, gray, lavender or brown. These crystals form as groundwater, containing silica, filters through the outer shell of mineralized earth and builds up inside.

Geodes are unique rocks that are found in Iowa, Illinois, Missouri and the western United States.

oak tree

Iowa’s state tree — oak

Again, there are many species of oak (Quercus spp.) that are native to Iowa, but the State Legislature never chose a specific species for the state tree. Iowa’s native oaks include:

  • White oak (Quercus alba)
  • Swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor)
  • Burr oak (Quercus macrocarpa)
  • Red oak (Quercus rubra)
  • Pin oak (Quercus palustris)
  • Northern pin oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis)
  • Black oak (Quercus velutina)
  • Chinquapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii)
  • Dwarf chinquapin oak (Quercus prinoides)
  • Shingle oak (Quercus imbricaria)
  • Blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica)
  • Post oak (Quercus stellata)

Burr oaks were once the only trees that were found on the vast tallgrass prairie that covered Iowa, because their thick, cork-like bark protected them from prairie fires. They also have vast root systems that reach deep into the ground to find water in times of drought. Burr oaks can easily be identified by their bristled acorn caps and leaves with shallow lobes that are broader at the top and narrower at the base.

(What is the fuzzy stuff on my oak leaves?)

Pin oaks were once native to the bottomlands of southern Iowa, but they were extensively planted throughout the state for wildlife habitat and as shade trees. They have leaves that are narrow with deep lobes that reach almost all the way to the middle vein.

(Use this handy guide to help identify leaves)