The importance of old barns and other farm buildings

Francis Skalicky
Missouri Department of Conservation

If you live in the country and enjoy seeing wildlife on your land, you may want to reconsider tearing down that “old eyesore” in the corner of your field.

The Ozarks countryside is dotted with barns, sheds, old houses and other buildings that outlived their usefulness to humans long ago. Many of these relics of bygone farming days sit off in pastures, having been replaced by modern milk barns, better grain and hay storage facilities and newer homes. If you have such a structure on your land, don’t start the bulldozer yet. That dilapidated old barn or the old farmhouse beside it may not be as abandoned as you think.

Photo courtesy Francis Skalicky.

Old barns and other farm buildings may have lost their importance to humans, but they are of great importance to wildlife. The structures and the surrounding plant cover provide homes, protective cover and food for a variety of species.

The vegetation around old barns is usually thick; thanks to the rich soil that is the result of the manure of long-gone livestock. This thick tangle of weeds and brush provides protection and food for rabbits, quail, turkey, numerous songbirds and a variety of other species.

Moving inside the building, you’ll likely find more wildlife diversity. Two species of bats, big brown and little brown, frequently use such buildings as daytime shelters. Groundhogs, foxes, skunks, and other animals that utilize burrows and dens will also often take up residence somewhere in the interiors of these structures.

Reptiles love forgotten farm buildings, too. The northern fence lizard, five-lined skink and broadhead skink find shelter and insects in these old buildings. Black rat snakes also find food and shelter. Gray treefrogs are also commonly found in or on the sides of old buildings. These little amphibians enjoy resting in the cool nooks and crannies where the old wood and concrete meet along the foundation.

Barn owl nestling in barn rafters, Clinton, Mo.

Another occasional resident of barns and old abandoned buildings is the barn owl. This bird benefits farmers through its efficient hunting. One study reported that a pair of nesting barn owls fed 758 mice to their young over a period of 96 nights.

Barn owls aren’t the only birds that use old buildings. Barn swallows, vultures, phoebes and American kestrels use silos, barns and other abandoned structures for roosting and nesting.

Of course, use good judgment in your assessment of old buildings. If an old barn or other structure is in danger of collapsing and causing damage to nearby buildings (or nearby humans), tear it down. However, if you have an old out-of-the-way building that poses few hazards and is standing in a location you’re not utilizing, think about letting it stand. If you want to enhance wildlife habitat on your land, remember the buildings that others have forgotten.

The use of old buildings as wildlife habitat is one of a number of topics covered in the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) book “Wildlife Management for Missouri Landowners. This free booklet can be found at some MDC offices and ordered from the MDC website at https://mdc.mo.gov/sites/default/files/mdcd7/downloads/Free-information-Form.pdf

Other information about managing your land in a wildlife-friendly way can be found at your nearest MDC office or at mdc.mo.gov.

Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.