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Barns and Swallows

Garth Brown |

The big old dairy barn that dominates the farmyard looks a lot better on the outside then on the inside. The roof line is straight and the siding is in decent shape, but a cursory internal examination reveals the work of powder post beetles, and one top plate is held in place by a length of cable that snakes up through the rafters to terminate at the opposite wall and a bunch of dimensional lumber nailed to the outside. While this is an inspired bit of farmer engineering, it does not inspire confidence in the structure’s long term prospects. Further, like many barns of its type, it does not have much of a foundation. One theory I’ve heard is that so long as a bunch of cows live in the first floor, their collective heat is sufficient to prevent the ground from freezing, no matter how cold it gets outside. I like this for the romantic notion of a building being in symbiosis with its inhabitants, but I’ve never asked the opinion of an engineer on the physics of the idea, and I don’t intend to. But whether due to a lack of cows or something else, the floor has begun to heave when the ground freezes hard. Further, it’s got close to 10,000 square feet of floor space between the two stories, approximately 5% of which are being used, and these to store old wood, PVC pipe, spare insulation panels, and other things that could easily be put elsewhere.

So the most sensible course of action is to take it down. Restoring it do its former glory, or even just doing enough to keep it from further deteriorating, would be a hugely expensive project, and since I’m not operating a tie stall dairy, it would be a hugely expensive project with no utility beyond a nice place to put scraps of plywood.

My biggest regret about this prospect is not nostalgic, but rather that it will mean the end of the current Barn Swallow colony. This year I’ve been particularly taken with watching them swoop and spin around the house, dive bombing each other and the cat and Oban. Once, for no reason I could tell since I wasn’t anywhere near their nests, I felt something tap my hat only to turn and see three of the little birds swirling above my head.

This is the best site I’ve found for information about Barn Swallows, and it has made me particularly happy to have such a vibrant colony on the farm, even as it has made me pessimistic that I’ll be able to do anything to perpetuate it when I dismantle the current location. I’ve also been wondering, as I drive around and notice all the collapsing old barns in the area, how many similar colonies have been disbanded over the past couple decades, particularly since modern pole building don’t offer good nesting sites.

I hope I can figure out some place for them. It’s easy to see how the local farming practices favor some native fauna, like deer, turkey, raccoons, groundhogs and other species that take great pleasure in denuding crops and gardens, but they also allow Barn Swallows to thrive. Since their diet consists of flying insects like flies and mosquitoes, they are welcome tenants, and I even enjoy the way their mud nests look tucked up against the ceiling. Instead of rambling on any longer I’ll conclude with this video, which I recommend watching in full screen.


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