Farm Wildlife As We Once Knew It

Originally published in the Fall 2005 issue of the Iowa Barn Foundation Magazine.
Written by Steve Lekwa, Director, Story County Conservation

Farm buildings and farm wildlife both derive their character from the farms they occupy. A modern row-crop farm may have a few metal sided pole buildings, rather sterile structures designed to shelter equipment. They may serve their specialized purpose just fine, but, like the large specialized farms they occupy, they often don't have much to offer native wildlife.

Almost any old barn tells a very different story. The loft above may still smell of old hay once used to feed livestock that inhabited the various stalls below. Some had stanchions to hold dairy cows that came in from grass pastures twice a day to be milked. Dairy barns usually had an attached silo to hold chopped silage for the cows, too. Wooden corn cribs often stood nearby to help dry and hold ear corn that came from fields that might have been larger than 40 acres, but usually weren't.

The old wooden buildings tell their stories of multiple uses on small diversified farms where four or more crops and several kinds of livestock were raised each year. A typical farm in the late 1800's through the 1950's would have grown corn, oats, maybe some wheat, and hay. Other crops like buckwheat and sorghum were fairly common, too. Soybeans didn't appear until near the end of that era. There would also have been grass (sometimes still native) pastures. The various crop fields and pastures were separated by fairly wide fence rows that grew lush with tall grasses and sometimes weeds and brush, perfect habitat for a wide variety of songbirds and bobwhite quail.

The diversity of crops meant that the land supported a diversity of habitat types with edges that, in turn, supported diverse wildlife. Today's corn and bean farmers may have to set aside special areas that are managed specifically for wildlife if they are to have much wildlife at all, while wildlife was a natural byproduct of faming in the past. Grassland songbirds like bobolinks and meadowlarks readily adapted to hay meadows that replaced the native prairies and sedge meadows. Jack rabbits loved hay fields, too, and it wasn't unusual to see half a dozen or more running down the road in front of the car on evening rides in the 1950's. Small mammals of many kinds thrived in such habitat, and carnivores like foxes and badgers found life among the small farms quite agreeable compared to making a living on the vast prairies of old. Their plentiful numbers provided a secondary source of income for some farmers who harvested their pelts during the winter.

Prairie chickens actually increased in number as small farms added nutritious grains to their diet. They, too, provided supplemental income after the crops were in. They were trapped and shot by the literal wagon load and shipped by rail to eastern markets. They might have survived even that kind of pressure if large blocks of grassland had survived. Their numbers peaked before 1900, however, and they were virtually gone by 1950. An alien import called the Chinese ringnecked pheasant found small diverse farms just perfect and increased even as the native prairie chickens disappeared. They still provide outstanding sport hunting today in areas where favorable options in the federal farm program provide habitat to support them.

Hay fields and grassy fence rows are all but gone, relics of a time when cows, horses, hogs, and sheep wandered pastures and harvested fields. Vast, fenceless, nearly weed-free expanses of corn and soy beans have replaced the small fields and pastures of old. Scattered here and there among them, often forgotten and forlorn with no modern uses, stand the last of the old wooden barns and cribs. They remind us of a time when the songs of meadowlarks and bobolinks were taken for granted as part of any summer morning; a time when plentiful wild game lived on every "old home place", and large families worked small diversified farms.