Old Buildings and Wildlife

Originally published in the Spring 2004 issue of the Iowa Barn Foundation Magazine.
Written by Steve Lekwa Director, Story County Conservation Board.

The roof may have holes in it, and the once straight ridge line may now sag with age. Only hints of color may show that graying old boards once felt the stroke of a paint brush. It's probably been decades since the last cow looked out the door at what was then a barn yard that was an integral part of a working family farm. It would be wrong to think that old farm buildings no longer serve animal needs, though.

In fact, old farm buildings still are occupied by a host of wild birds and animals, some that were welcomed when the buildings were new, some that were probably there all along, but unnoticed, and some that would not have been such welcomed guests when the farmer had to be in and out of the building several times each day.

Common pigeons were once year-round residents at every diverse farm operation, taking up their station in hay lofts among the rafters, and announcing anyone's arrival in the loft with that unique slap, slap, slapping of their wings as they exited through the open loft door. Their fat young, known as squabs, sometimes graced farm tables as a seasonal delicacy. They like to stay high, though, and their numbers have declined along with the barns and corn cribs tall enough to attract them.

Any large building with open windows or doors might still provide a home to a colony of those sparkling aerial acrobats that take their favorite buildings as part of their name, the barn swallows. Their cheerful chatter and nests made of barnyard mud tucked along rafters up under ceilings were as sure a sign that spring had come as any on the farm. Where will they go when the last old barn is gone?

Old barns near woods and streams might still attract the attention of another insect eating bird, the eastern phoebe. Phoebes prefer lower levels of a building, especially a basement level common on barns built into hillsides for their mud and moss nests. Conditions there mimic the cool, damp cave entrances they once used as homes before barns and country bridges offered them new opportunities.

Never welcomed, but present where ever humans build, mice and rats still find farm buildings new and old to their liking. Most native owls willingly enter open old buildings in search of prey, and often perch in lofts where they leave their calling cards, pellets of compressed fur and bone which they cough up after a mouse meal. This includes the barn owl, now endangered over much of its range as old buildings and nearby pastures where they nested and hunted has disappeared. A badger may burrow after rodents under barn foundations. Raccoons and opossums still love old buildings whether they can find food there or not. Skunks and wood chucks also seem to like digging dens under old foundations.

Several species of bats readily make use of crevasses between rafters high up in old farm buildings where they quietly await evenings of insect hunting. Many species of these mostly beneficial mammals are also in decline across America, due, at least in part, to the loss of old farm building habitat.

The farm animals and stored crops they were built for may be long gone, but old farm buildings are still attractive homes to a host of wild creatures who will miss them as, year by year, more of them crumble and disappear from our rural landscape.