Vt. bat expert speaks in Pownal


POWNAL -- Most bats in Vermont are insect eaters, but of the state's bat population, more than half are on the endangered species list.

Local butterfly and bat expert Jerry Schneider, of Hardwick, gave his presentation "The Wonderful World of Bats," at the Solomon Wright Public Library in Pownal on Saturday.

"Vermont is a good place for bats because we don't develop as much as in the Midwest," said Schneider, of the decreasing habitat for bats in many parts of the country due to deforestation.

Bats have been around for millions of years, the nocturnal animals are also the only flying mammal.

Little brown bats were among the most common species in southern Vermont a decade ago, but have since been overtaken by the big brown bat, or house bat, due to the spread of the fungus known as white nose syndrome.

While both species typically hibernate from October to late April or May, little brown bats prefer damp caves, while their larger relative can exist in dry spaces.

The fungus causes their wings to become brittle and can adversely affect hibernation patterns.

"Bats that hibernate in damp caves are in trouble," said Schneider, noting that there are 60 to 70 different species of bats in the United States, some of whom migrate seasonally.

Raccoons are often more likely to carry rabies than bats are, according to Schneider, answering questions from the audience at Saturday's program.

"Of the bats who are turned in and thought to have rabies, only about five percent actually do," he said.

Most bats have underdeveloped leg muscles, causing them to be unable to take flight from the ground or other low places from which they cannot soar.

"If you see a bat on the ground and it's moving around funny, you might think it could be sick or have rabies but likely it just can't get in the air again," said Schneider, who has helped bats regain their flight by putting on gloves and giving them a little toss into the air.

"That usually gets them on their way again," he said.

Although unusual to see them during the daytime, the average little brown bat can eat 1,000 to 2,000 mosquitoes in an evening. Other bats eat fruit, or, in the case of the vampire bat, blood. While they do not bite their prey, they scratch the surface of an animal's skin, and feed on the blood before quickly leaving.

Vampire bats are the only bats who can use their legs to run, sometimes as fast as 8 miles per hour, according to Schneider. However, the closest they are found to Vermont is in Mexico.

"I like to call the vampire bat ‘the dentist of the bat family,'" said Schneider, due to the ability of their saliva to numb the area and produce an anticoagulant, which prevents the blood from clotting.

Often roosting in trees during the warmer months, bats live in colonies and need a consistent temperature in the low 40 degree range to successfully hibernate.

Although bats can see as well as humans can, echolocation calls are used to help them navigate in the dark. By making a high pitched, low volume nose that people cannot naturally hear, bats are able to find insects and avoid predators as the noise reverberates off the objects around them.

Schneider showed wooden bat-houses to the mixed crowd of children and adults in attendance. A large size house, roughly two-feet tall and one-foot wide, can hold as many as 50 bats, who cling to the mesh screening inside the space only a few inches deep.

Early summer is the best season to incorporate a new bat house on a property, as they nurse their young, or "pups," for several months after birth -- until they are able to fly. The average bat has only one pup per year.

"It can be harder for bat populations to bounce back," said Schneider. "It takes them a lot longer to catch up than Monarchs," he said, of the butterflies who often lay thousands of eggs each year.

Although foremost an expert on bats native to our area, Schneider also showed a slideshow of images taken from around the world, by founder of Bat Conservation International, Merlin Tuttle.

"They're very social animals," said Schneider. "They stay with their families even as they get older."

While the bumblebee bat is the smallest species, the largest can have wing spans of over five feet, and are only found overseas. Little brown bats generally weigh only one fifth of an ounce.

The length of a human thumb, their wingspan can be as wide as ten inches.

Home to 9 bat species, the second most common variety of bats found in Vermont is the northern long-eared bat.

A common result of the decline in the bat population is the rise in dragonflies. In an interesting scientific pattern, while bats prey on dragonflies, among many other insects, dragonflies also prey on mosquitoes.

As there are fewer bats, there are more mosquitoes, and both an increased food source for the dragonflies as well as a lowered threat of becoming food themselves.

Ray Rodrigues, of Pownal, said he was interested to learn of the specific temperatures bats require for hibernation, and would consider putting up a bat house if his property were a suitable habitat.

"I don't think I have enough trees for them though," said Rodrigues.

After the lecture, children made shirts outside with black glittering paint and bat and insect stencils. The 50-plus degree temperatures had everyone enjoying the afternoon, including Bobby Simmons, 11, and Devon Sullivan, 10.

Both boys participated by asking and answering questions during the presentation, including how long bats live (some as long as 35 years), and do they bite people (generally, no).

"It was pretty cool," said Simmons, painting his shirt under a tree on the library lawn.

Although most bats have settled in to hibernate already, the colder months leave plenty of opportunity for building a bat house for next year. Bat excrement, known as "guano," is a rich source of natural fertilizer for gardens or flower beds and can be helpful to the outdoor enthusiast.

For more information visit www.vtfishandwildlife.com.

Contact Khynna at kkuprian@benningtonbanner.com and follow her on Twitter @khynnakat.


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