The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

August 3, 2013

No Child Left Indoors: Time to help the bats

By Bob Garrett
For The Daily Item

Some folks see them as creepy things with webbed wings, pointy teeth and sharp claws. What’s worse is that they have furry bodies of seemingly unkempt hair.

However, to the informed they are critically-important flying mammals who help to keep our natural ecology in balance. Without bats, the bugs of summer would be unbearable and the impact of pests on agriculture would be immeasurable. The really sad part of the bat story is that they’re dying by the millions. Seven million, to date, to be exact.

For the child who doesn’t want to left inside this summer, partnering with the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s biologists with bat monitoring efforts might be a perfect activity as we move through these "dog days" of summer.

The idea behind this effort is to collect bat maternity colony data for the remainder of the summer. This monitoring is important because it will help bat biologists to better understand the mortalities caused by White-Nose Syndrome.

According to game commission wildlife biologist Nate Zalik, "White-Nose Syndrome primarily kills during the winter, but the true impact of this dreaded disease on Pennsylvania’s bat populations cannot be determined using estimates from winter hibernacula alone." He added that, "Pennsylvanians of all ages can help us to more fully gauge the impact of this syndrome on bats by hosting a bat count this summer."

To obtain a bat count form and to learn more about our friendly, local creatures of the night, please visit the game commission’s website at: www.pgc.state.pa.us. Once you’re on the web page, move your cursor over "Wildlife" and scroll to "Pennsylvania Bats" under the "Wild Mammals" section.

You’ll be able to access lots of interesting information that will guide you through the steps of timing your count, conducting the survey and submitting their findings to the game commission. A bat count would be a good family activity. Certainly Scout groups, 4-H clubs, environmental and sportsmen’s organizations are all encouraged to participate in a surveying effort.

Here in the Susquehanna Valley, we have two common species of bats. They are the little brown bat and the big brown bat. Both species tend to use buildings such as abandoned houses, barns, church steeples and sometimes the attics of our very-much occupied houses as their roosts. All of these locations provide a perfect summer home for female bats and for her brood.

Bats are affected by a fungus, which appears on their muzzle (white-nose) and on their wings while they hibernate in the winter. Researchers believe the condition rouses them from their slumber and saps them of their energy. They can starve to death during hibernation. The disease is not contagious to humans or pets.

According to Calvin Butchkoski, who is also a game commission wildlife biologist, "The bats have a "mechanical approach" to fighting the disease. If affected, they will search for a new roost. But given that they’re in their winter hibernation it may be too cold for them to handle and they literally freeze to death. Also, their food sources are scarce so they have nothing to eat when their small bodies need it most."

White-nose syndrome, which moved into Pennsylvania in 2008, has already started to tip the natural balance. Butchkoski said that, "We’re seeing a shift in species. Little brown bats were by far the most numerous species in Pennsylvania before white-nose syndrome, whereas now little brown bats have been greatly affected by this disease. Their population has declined dramatically."

Female bats in summer maternity colonies can consume their body weight in insects in a single night. With fewer bats, it stands to reason that there will be more bugs. Bat’s insect diet includes pests that damage crops and blood-sucking mosquitoes that could transmit diseases to humans. As more bugs go uneaten by the bats, there will be a financial burden to the agriculture industry. Likely, the pesticide industry will be called upon to come up with more-lethal bug killers and outdoor enthusiasts while need to lather on more nasty bug repellants. Neither of which is good news.

So if you, your family or your organization could assist with counting the bats in our valley it would be a big help.

Email comments to garrettoutdoors@gmail.com