As “Ghost Owls” Approach Literal Ghosthood, So Do We | Sierra Club

2022-06-15 12:36:54 By : Ms. Cindy Hu

Photos courtesy of Bruce Ehresman

The one wild barn owl I’ve ever seen materialized out of the dark in the same sudden and eerie way a squid might rise from the depths of the ocean into the light of a diver’s lamp. I stopped my car on the crumbling shoulder of the unlit backroad of northeast Ohio, soft brakes sighing. The plunge of the owl across my headlight beams had been so brief, there was almost nothing to play back in my head. For a moment I doubted it had happened at all. Then I blinked and a ghostly streak burned bright as a comet against the back of my lids.  

Barn owls live nearly everywhere. They populate all continents except Antarctica, are spread from the spires of Argentina to the moors of Scotland, from Tasmania to the Galápagos, and are absent only from the northernmost latitudes and the heart of the Sahara Desert. Unlike other raptors, which sit and watch for prey, barn owls hunt on the wing, gliding a few feet above the ground, listening for the telltale rustle of small mammals below. Long, broad wings and specialized feathers reduce air turbulence to almost zero. Exceptional hearing allows them to pinpoint prey by sound better than any other animal we know of. 

Their light underbelly plumage, ranging from stark to creamy white, makes barn owls nearly luminesce in direct light, or else intimate a silver specter at the edge of your periphery on a moonless night. As cavity dwellers, these owls adapted readily to human presence, moving into steeples and haymows and earning their common moniker: barn owl. Imagining one of these birds, incandescent under a full moon, gliding soundlessly among the gravestones of a churchyard, it’s easy to understand how they earned another epithet: ghost owl. Indeed, there is one place where this particular name is turning into prophecy. 

Ceres, daughter of Saturn, goddess of agriculture, harvest, and crops, looks down on Iowa State University students from atop Curtiss Hall. Her relief—and carved proclamation, Agriculture—crowns the building’s limestone portico. In the nearby courtyard of Agronomy Hall stands a sculpture that resembles the blades of two oversized shovels fused tang-to-tang like an hourglass or infinity symbol. Past and future. Cultivation eternal. All around campus, Iowa’s largest university projects the state’s reverence for farming—though perhaps nowhere more so than in one small, roped-and-lit recess inside the library. 

Designed by Grant Woods of American Gothic fame, the mural Breaking the Prairie Sod blushes the epicenter of ISU’s accumulated knowledge with the warmth of regionalist propaganda. In the foreground, three plain-faced men with chinstrap beards toil under the wide Iowa sky. Two swing axes against the last remaining trees. The third drinks deeply from a stoneware jug delivered to him by a sedate and bonneted woman. The drinker’s other hand rests on a horse-drawn plow paused in the middle of turning over the stalks of last year’s harvest. 

Where the plow bites the loam, the earth folds over like a ribbon, easy and clean as turning down bedsheets. Other than the man’s thirst, there is no illustration of the hardships that defined pioneer life—the grime and poverty, the meager harvests, the fever, malaria, and infant mortality, the insect plagues and prairie fires, the harsh winters, the ditch-digging and tile-laying. The soft, air-brushed look so indicative of Woods’s style gives the mural a simple divinity, as if the white man merely appeared, turned the soil, and prospered. This painting preserves agriculture at the critical moment when grassland still seemed infinite, labor plain and honest, and the future as bright and limitless as the cerulean sky. This is the version of agriculture people like to believe in.

Of course, reality, even during the time the mural was painted, never lined up with this depiction. A Works Progress Administration initiative, Breaking the Prairie Sod, was completed during the final throes of both the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, a time when the government leaned on the power of the American mythos to remind its citizens of the westward pioneer’s can-do attitude and to elevate to unquestionable piety the virtuous labor of the humble farmer. 

A romantic story. If reality was different then, it is even more so now. Iowa today is home to 24.6 million hogs—that’s 7.8 pigs for every human—and has been the country’s leading corn producer all but one year since 1978. In 2020, Iowa produced nearly 2.3 billion bushels of grain corn and almost 494 million bushels of soybeans, a combined crop valued at over $15.3 billion. Picture it this way: If you replaced all the water feeding the American side of Niagara Falls with the grain corn grown in Iowa that year, the cascade would continue to flow at its usual rate of 75,750 gallons per second for over three days before running dry—nearly four if you tossed in the soybeans. 

Before cultivation, tallgrass prairie was the most prevalent ecosystem in the state. Now less than one-tenth of 1 percent remains. Shallow prairie marshes and other wetlands long since drained once raised millions of waterfowl every year. Iowa, historically a cornucopia of thousands of native and migratory species, has excised many of its native animals. Black bears, bison, pronghorn antelope, porcupines, elk, wolves, mountain lions, swift foxes, black-tailed prairie dogs, pygmy shrews, pine martens, fishers, wolverines, marbled godwits, long-billed curlews, common loons, and whooping cranes have all been expelled. Many other species—like the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, prairie chicken, spotted skunk, wood turtle, western hognose snake, piping plover, and dozens of other reptiles, mammals, amphibians, snails, butterflies, fish, and bivalves—persist, but in drastically reduced numbers. 

The barn owl is among these endangered and threatened creatures, but for a while it had an easier time than its counterparts. As old-growth sycamores and cottonwoods were felled for fence posts, farmhouses, and railroad ties, these birds transitioned easily into the undisturbed corners of haylofts, which stood in excellent proximity to the owls’ rodent prey. For decades, barn owls coexisted with Iowans, roosting in belfries and sheds and catching mice and voles. Human structures provided safe nesting sites even where before there had been none. Barn owls’ habitat expanded throughout the 1800s, and their population peaked in the early- to mid-1900s before plummeting like a stone kicked down a well. Between 1995 and 2005, only 37 barn owl nests were confirmed in Iowa.

So what happened? Farms expanded. Are expanding. Wooden barns and outbuildings, once abundant across the landscape, are being bulldozed and replaced with metal sheds and tractor hangars that are fewer between and offer no place for owls to nest. From 1950 to 2010, 11.3 million acres of grassland in Iowa were converted to corn and soybean fields, drastically reducing habitat for voles, shrews, and mice. As more farms disappear and change, Iowa becomes less and less habitable for the barn owl, a species with which we have long generously shared space. The rate of their decline to endangered species status in the state—and across the Midwest—after the second half of the 20th century has been nothing short of apocalyptic. 

I drive west from Ames through long, wide fields of corn and soybeans, across the sluggish course of the Des Moines River, and on to more corn and soybeans. A copse of wind turbines and a blue-and-white-striped water tower, gaudy and festive as a circus tent, mark my turn off the interstate in Boone County. I’m on my way to a rare thing in Iowa: a 76-acre wooded vale folded into the crease of a small creek. My dog—a medium-small cannonball of a terrier—looks up from where she is curled on the passenger seat as we judder across a pair of uneven railroad tracks. In the distance, the lanterns of a Union Pacific diesel electric gleam and ripple through heat haze. Houses give way again to cornfields, and I drive another few minutes before pulling into a small gravel parking area hidden from the road by the leeward side of a steep ditch and a patch of native prairie grass. 

I grab my backpack—inside are a coil of cotton rope, some tools, and my laptop—and stop at the little shed on the property to pick up a ladder I stashed there a few months ago. I drag it outside, dust it off, hoist it onto my shoulder, and set off into the woods. My dog bursts from the grass and gallops after me, big, pink tongue lolling. 

A short hike brings us to a warty, straight-backed hackberry tree at the confluence of the woods, the creek, and a 12-acre meadow. Earlier in the year, by the bleak light of a winter sun, I salvaged shingles from dumpsters and collected screws from discarded cupboards left by the curb. I sawed apart and hammered together store-bought plywood and cut a six-inch-wide hole in the front, near the top. Then, in mid-March, when the ground was still frozen but the sky shone bright with the promise of spring, I clung to the cold rungs of a borrowed aluminum ladder and mounted my barn owl nesting box 16 feet up the tree.

I peer up at it now where it still hangs, less a few corners and edges since it was raised thanks to a vandalistic fox squirrel. Steps, like those to a treehouse, are nailed to the trunk starting seven feet up, just above a girdle of aluminum flashing meant to keep raccoons away. I scale the ladder and then climb these steps until I’m eye-level with the box—where I pause to loop the rope around the tree and knot it under my armpits. The makeshift harness holds me against the trunk as I unlatch the door of the owl house and peer inside. No squirrel to leap out and scurry down my neck. But also no owl or eggs. Except for a few dry leaves and some flakes of chewed plywood, the box is empty.

Two months ago Anna Buckardt Thomas, an Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) avian ecologist, met me at the property to assess the box and add it to her survey of over 70 barn owl nest boxes across the state. “Looks like you’ve got a squirrel,” she said when she first saw the raggedly enlarged entry hole. No doubt the gabled awning and exterior perch I’d added to the design I found online had become convenient platforms from which the squirrel could conduct its dental disassembly. I hadn’t nailed up the steps yet, without which there was no way to inspect the box more closely—a necessity for inclusion in the monitoring program. I promised her I’d find a way to check the box and evict the squirrel as soon as possible. We walked back to our cars, and I asked what it would mean if we lost the barn owl in Iowa. Thomas smiled sadly. 

“Losing the barn owl is not the harbinger of the apocalypse. I mean they’re not an ecosystem engineer. It’s not like the barn owl is doing some direct human service we can’t live without,” she said, canting her baseball cap against the sun. “But it’s not good either. The loss of any species means we’ve failed as stewards—and not just the IDNR that’s been charged with protecting and conserving—but the whole population. Especially in a state that’s only 1 percent public land. One percent is not enough to maintain all our species.”

I’d heard this narrative from other conservationists in the state. Public land in Iowa is closely managed to benefit endangered species, but with the second-lowest percentage of public land in the country (ahead only of Kansas), it’s infeasible to think we can rehabilitate endangered wildlife on these resources alone. The best hope for the barn owl is if private landowners aid the IDNR by taking part in the recovery effort. I imagined arguing for the protection of barn owls to a practical-minded farmer, and Thomas’s words reverberated in my mind: It’s not like the barn owl is doing some direct human service we can’t live without. 

“Do you think farmers and landowners would be willing to save a bird like this?” I asked. “If they’re busy just keeping a roof over their heads? You think they’d care enough about barn owls?” 

“Iowans like wildlife,” Thomas said. “They might say, ‘Yeah, this is in my corn crib and it’s got to go,’ but no one’s ever mad they found an owl.” She cast her eyes across the phalanx of corn surrounding us. “It’s a story of coexistence. The exclusion or elimination of all other creatures shouldn’t have to be the condition of human existence.” She walked to her car and slung her backpack on the seat. “You’re doing the right thing putting up a box. Who knows. You might get lucky.”

When I first hung the box I’d felt sure an owl would find it. I dreamt at night of coming to the property and seeing owls soar from the tree fringe and woke in the morning excited, thinking I’d had a premonition. Now, staring into the empty, squirrel-gnawed box, I feel the burden of Thomas’s assessment. The owls are so few, the landscape so vast. How will an owl ever happen across my box?

My dog whines below me, her front paws on the lower rungs of the ladder. I’ve been a long time in the tree. I sweep out the leaf litter, refasten the hasp, and climb back down to the ground. Then I scale the lean, crooked form of another nearby tree to retrieve the memory card from the motion-activated trail camera I’d left there. I check the footage on my laptop and find 37 videos of a fat, brown fox squirrel diligently reducing the box to splinters. 

According to the IDNR 2016–2020 Barn Owl Recovery Plan, “The declining availability of nesting sites for barn owls is tied directly to increasing farm sizes and intensified industrial agricultural in the Midwest (Colvin 1985), especially the loss of large treed windbreaks and old farm buildings (e.g., barn lofts and outbuildings) for nesting.”

The referenced 1985 study observed the barn owl population in Ohio in the context of agricultural trends from 1921, the first year data was available, until 1980. A decline in horses, mules, sheep, milk cows, and hayfields, as well as a sharp increase in corn and soybean production, correlates with the decline of barn owls in the state and across the Midwest. 

Until the 1940s, farmers implemented crop rotations that always included at least one or two years of meadow. They also consistently held 25 percent of their land as meadow either as grazing pasture for horses and livestock or because they lacked the time and manpower to harvest more crops. This meadow, along with brushy fencerows, began to vanish as agriculture scaled up to support the war effort. Livestock production was transferred to feedlots, planting cycles became two-year rotations of corn and soybeans, and industrial machines replaced nearly all the horses and mules used for farm work. Landowners succumbed to debt and competition after the mid-century farming boom, and what farms remained consolidated, becoming larger and more efficient. Land once left fallow was now tilled edge-to-edge. 

Bob Zimmerman, a farmer with 560 acres west of Des Moines spoke to me about this changing farmscape: “At one time my dad was considered a large farmer, but even then he had cattle, he had hogs, he had sheep, he had two corn shellers, he had a hay baler, and was running two combines. Now everything’s become more specialized. You’re either a grain farmer or a livestock farmer, is the rule.”

Zimmerman grew up on his land, which came down from his grandparents to his parents and then to him and his siblings, who he bought out. Today he caretakes the property with help from Conservation Reserve Program funding that pays him to keep a portion of his land out of production. He grows row crops, but maintains vegetation buffers on the field headlands and along Walnut Creek, which runs through his land, and has enough hay ground to feed about 85 cows. The uncultivated CRP land supports pheasants and quails, which Zimmerman likes to hunt, but his farm wasn’t always managed like this.

An aerial photo of his farm from the 1940s shows Walnut Creek as a meandering stream shaded by trees on both sides. After the photo was taken, the creek was filled, dredged, and straightened—as were creeks all across the state—to maximize arable land. Topsoil and nutrients washed away with every rain. Banks and streambeds eroded. Cottonwoods and willows wilted and died. Zimmerman has since installed weir dams on his stretch of creek, but assured me many farmers around him don’t have such an eye on the future. For some, the land is a commodity. For others who don’t have children willing to take over operations, it means selling or cash renting to the highest bidder who then often doesn’t have the money or margins to improve the ground. 

Declining soil and water quality have everything to do with barn owl conservation. CRP grassland is prime habitat for voles, barn owls’ favorite prey. The meadows and prairie strips being resurrected—not for horse pasture, but to retain topsoil—are therefore key to barn owl success. When I asked Zimmerman what he knows about barn owls, he told an anecdotal version of the story confirmed by researchers and popular trends: “As a kid, basically every farmer had a few cows. And so, everyone had 10, 20, sometimes 30 acres of alfalfa to feed their own livestock. And people had barns, and everybody had an owl or two living in their barn. Twenty years ago, everybody kept saying ‘get big or get out.’ There’s only three barns I can see in the neighborhood anymore, and there used to be two or three per mile.” 

The IDNR, formerly the Iowa Conservation Commission, released 427 captive-reared barn owls between 1983 and 1987, including 42 owls in Boone County. There was not a significant increase in the number of wild barn owls following this effort, likely because the owls lacked roosting locations both safe enough from predators like great horned owls and close enough to high densities of prey. They left the state or died. Since then, the IDNR has changed tact, implementing a nest box program on public land that establishes nesting cavities near populations of small rodents and compensates for a decline in homestead outbuildings. Even as farming practices transform to become more specialized and haymows are replaced with galvanized sheds, barn owls stand a chance of recovering if farmers with CRP land supplement IDNR efforts and also install nest boxes, which can be mounted to buildings or erected on poles. 

Uniquely, as an r-selected species (one that reproduces rapidly and bears many offspring), barn owls may rebound well—and quickly—given the right conditions. They are not as area sensitive as other birds. The prairie chicken, which requires many thousands of acres, will never see a robust population in Iowa again. Barn owls, though, have a chance. 

Bruce Ehresman, retired IDNR avian ecologist recalls seeing barn owls on his family’s farm growing up. Others his age remember them too, and they’re still fond of them now.

“I’ve seen people—even what you might call some prickly, old farmers—go out of their way to protect [barn owls],” Ehresman told me. “This one fellow, he needed his corn bins to put his harvest in, and he was willing to wait until the owls were out, and then he was willing to put a barn owl box on top of the grain bins once he started using them again.” 

What was it Thomas had said? No one’s ever mad they found an owl. When I mentioned this to Ehresman, he agreed. Barn owls hit the sweet spot, he said. They live close to us without offending life or property, but are mild and reclusive enough that sightings are still exciting and rare. They’ve also married themselves to our sentimental vision of agriculture, to the simpler, rose-colored times of people’s childhoods. Ironically, the very romanticism that leads us to view agriculture as unfailingly righteous may be the same force that makes farmers sympathetic to the little owl that serves them no economic purpose. 

Momentary optimism. Then Ehresman shared the story of Zelbert Freemyer, who had 500 acres of grassland conservation reserve and hosted barn owls on his property in southern Iowa for at least 20 years. When he died, the buildings were torn down and the land converted to row crops. As land ownership changes, even the best intentions can be plowed under by a heavy-offset disk harrow. 

West again. This time through the denuded fields of the fall harvest, what Ehresman and others in the conservation world call “the black desert,” millions of acres of bare topsoil and soybean stubble where few if any animals can survive. Like a fly on the back of a freshly shorn sheep, I cross this true, future version of Grant Woods’s mural. The Des Moines River, receded after weeks without rain, muddles south as I drive over and on to the woodland edge where my barn owl box still sits in the knobby hackberry tree. 

After a summer of squirrel damage, the box must come down for repairs. I tie one end of a rope to the base of a nearby tree and then climb up the hackberry where I pass the other end of the rope over a sturdy branch before tying it to the box. I get my arm and shoulder inside and, with effort, jostle the box out of its cradle. Then I lower it to the ground where my dog sniffs it eagerly. The entry hole is over eight inches wide now, and the plywood has been routed in places as if by a Dremel-wielding toddler. It’ll have to be patched, and I have plans for a cambered awning that will hopefully squirrel-proof the box. 

I’m hopeful despite this setback. Ehresman informed me that some boxes installed as part of the captive-reared owl release in the ’80s saw barn owls only recently. He reassured me that boxes may go empty for a decade or more before an owl happens upon them. Until then, it’s important to keep the boxes clean and vacant. Barn owls are easily intimidated by other species, even pigeons, and won’t nest in a space that’s already occupied. Since I could only visit my box once every few weeks, I hadn’t been able to reliably expel the squirrel intruder, though there was also no evidence a barn owl had even ever visited.

Of the 72 boxes monitored as part of the statewide survey this year, only three were nested in. Adult owls were present in two others but were not observed to lay eggs. It was a particularly dry summer, which Thomas thinks likely reduced prey populations. But barn owls have squeaked through lean times before. And, just at the beginning of October, the IDNR shared footage of five juvenile barn owls roosting among the trusses of a private barn in Osceola, Iowa. One owl in the clip, downy fluff still poking between tawny flight feathers, tries to intimidate the camera, holding its wings out like a magician’s cloak and hissing and clicking its beak while its siblings crowd behind.

I shake out the spiders, ants, and stink bugs from my own ransacked box and lug it to my car. The corn around the property has not been harvested. It stands brittle and brown in the warm autumn air. Sometime soon, a 20-ton combine will sweep by, bringing it all in. We have lost much in the name of agriculture and done wrong by many creatures, but we may yet leave the door to our metaphorical haymow ajar. 

At first, our relationship with barn owls was accidental and uniquely innocent. Amid our bridling of land and beast, these birds came to live under our eaves, and we neither sought their eradication nor demanded from them a beneficial service. Across much time and many advents, they have grown to epitomize the rustic, agrarian lifestyle Iowans are so proud of. Why save barn owls? For many reasons, but maybe least of all because they represent one of the few bright spots of exception on a landscape otherwise commanded by extremes. Unlike Grant Woods’s mural, which glosses over atrocities in favor of false nobility, barn owls are a real, true, and special fixture of our messy and complex past. We would also be better to remember that as the ghost owl moves closer to becoming a literal ghost, so too do we. Due to topsoil loss, we are measuring Iowa’s farmable future in decades. A landscape inhospitable to barn owls is inhospitable to us as well. 

I detour through Iowa State University’s campus on my way back home. Its domes and turrets peek over the last, grand sycamores and I think, if we were to replace Ceres’s deific guidance with a more apt carving, it might take the form of another ethereal, high-roosted observer whose story and survival are inextricably bound to ours. What could be more past and future eternal than a sculpture of a living ghost? And if we repainted Breaking the Prairie Sod with an eye to realism, we might see the atrocity of our labor along with its virtues—on the ground, a grimy, sun-leathered human, ambitious but fallible, confronting the consequences of absolute pursuit. Above, withdrawn and watchful, the lustrous reminder of one of the best wildlife collaborations we ever achieved.

Video courtesy of Dave Tokheim

Iowans can make a tax-deductible contribution to the IDNR Wildlife Diversity Program via the Chickadee Check-off on their state tax form. A hundred percent of donations go directly to barn owl recovery and other wildlife diversity efforts. Anyone else interested in donating can send a check to the IDNR Wildlife Diversity Program, 1436 255th St., Boone, IA 50036. Information on installing a barn owl nest box can be found here. If you do install a nest box, make sure it is in proper habitat, inaccessible to predators, and at least one kilometer from busy roads. 

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Brendan Curtinrich is a freelance writer from Northeast Ohio whose nature writing and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Appalachia, Flyway, Gigantic Sequins, Split Rock,, and elsewhere.

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