The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.
The WildeBeat edition 109: Creatures of the Night, part 1
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Halloween is coming up. What kind of spooky things might you see in the wilderness at night? This week on The WildeBeat; Creatures of the Night, part 1.
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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.
This is program number one oh nine.
I'm Steve Sergeant.
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STEVE: What kind of small, furry mammal hides in dark places, in caves, in tiny crevasses and cracks in the rock, or under flaps of tree bark during the day, and then gets out and rules the skies at night. Many of you probably know already; I'm talking about bats. To most of us, bats are pretty myterious. To a lot of people, they're creepy and scary. For example, Dave Smith, who we heard from in our edition number eighty, is an expert on staying safe around dangerous animals like grizzly bears, bison, and mountain lions. But none of those beasts creep him out as much as bats.
DAVE SMITH: Ha. Yeah, I'm one of those people. [laughs] I know I'm supposed to say they're good and they eat insects, but it gives me the heebie-jeebies every time I see one flying around.
STEVE: last summer, at a nature sounds workshop, I met a guy who's right at home with bats. Curt Black lives in the Seattle area. Some people call him the Bat Man, though he dismisses that nickname as silly. I talked to Curt remotely from his bat cave, I mean, his home in the Seattle area.
CURT BLACK: I actually greatly enjoy interacting with them, and have done so since, I don't know, sometime since the nineteen seventies. But probably unlike most people out there, I've had my pre-exposure rabies inoculations since sometime in the nineteen seventies. There's a piece of me that wants to get across that you shouldn't handle bats if you don't have those pre-exposure rabies inoculations, ...but that it's great to admire them from afar. Anytime they're flying by, that's just a great thing to appreciate.
STEVE: So, how did you get started?
CURT BLACK: I used to be a very active caver, so cave explorers end up encountering bats in caves. Certainly bats live lots of other places as well, but the place that people and bats seem to interact a lot is cave passages... But eventually I kind of transitioned; I was kind of helping bat researchers, telling them where we were seeing bats. You know, talking to them about their caving techniques, and things like that, and eventually started hanging out more with the bat researchers than the cavers. And so, finally this transitioned to mostly bat research type stuff. I'm lucky enough to live in an area that has a local organization; in this case Bats Northwest, in Seattle, and we take kind of an educational role, and so Bats Northwest does a lot of education and outreach, gives talks, in schools and public presentations. We also try to get people who are interested in bats folded-in, through a bat ambassador training program, and those folks then become kind of a center of the training activity.
STEVE: So, it being almost Halloween here, bats are scary, scary creatures. Is that opinion people have of them warranted?
CURT BLACK: I'm usually pretty reluctant to reinforce the creepy, spooky, halloween-ee aspects of bats. I mean, I spend a lot of my time trying to overcome that stuff. But it still does give us an opportunity to talk about bats, at least once a year. Although I spend a lot of my time talking about them, and I'm happy to do so, pretty much anytime.
STEVE: A lot of people when they see pictures of bats they think of them as really scary and quite ugly. They're pretty tiny things with these ...really large wings, and these mouth wide open with all these teeth, and these odd-shaped ears and noses. They're all pretty terrifying looking.
CURT BLACK: There is a reason that they're flying around with their mouths open, at least the bats around here need to do that in order to get the sounds out, so that they can start getting those echos back and figure out where they are. But it's not an agressive thing. It's just the way they have to do it. ...They are very, very skilled fliers. And they're doing amazing things with that acoustic energy that they're using to image the environment. I mean, just like you do amazing things when you glance around the room, ...you're creating a three-dimensional picture of where everything is, and they're doing exactly the same thing except that they're painting the space around them with sound, and then building that picture, and then flying through it at a high rate of speed, and probably in pursuit of an insect. They're just amazing.
STEVE: So that open mouth isn't scooping insects out of the air?
CURT BLACK: No, they don't actually eat that way. Our insect eating bats up here are actually using their wings and batting the insects down into their tail membrane, and then they reach down there and get it... When you look at a swallow or a nighthawk or whatever, those birds have lots of specially adapted quills... around their mouths that give them lots of information and about how close they're getting to insects and allow them to capture insects with their mouths, but bats just aren't doing that kind of thing. They actually reach down, knock it into their tail membrane, ...crunch it up a little bit, maybe take the wings off, disable it, make it possible for them to eat it. It's a pretty different approach.
STEVE: Dave Smith's heebie-jeebies aside, people seem to have a lot of reasons why they think bats are scary and creepy.
CURT BLACK: I think most people think bats are blind, and flying rodents, things that get tangled in your hair, agressive with their little open mouths, some kind of modified bird or something. I don't think people think they're mammals. And that they're probably all blood-sucking vampire type creatures just waiting for you to expose a part of your neck.
STEVE: But almost none of these things are true. For example, you'd be seeing pretty well if you were as blind as a bat.
CURT BLACK: Yeah, it turns out they can see about as well if not maybe better than we can in low light.
STEVE: While some bats about the same size as some rodents, they're no more closely related to rodents than humans are.
CURT BLACK: They're definitely not rodents, they fly, but they are not rodents. They're in their own order of mammals, ...the Chiroptera, the handed, winged mammals. ...I think the thing that distinguishes them most from rodents would be their reproductive rate. And these are the mammals that have the lowest reproductive rate for size. And they're the longest-lived animals for their size. So like one young per year, contrasted with a litter every, ...like a white-footed deer mouse or something, at what twenty four days of age, and then every thirty something days they can have a litter of like eleven. So I mean in one year you could have like a million animals if you had unlimited resources for that mouse. And in that same your, your two-bat parents would have produced one offspring.
STEVE: So, how do I keep them out of my hair?
CURT BLACK: If you don't like having a bat in your hair, ...all you have to do is shout "Cut," because you are clearly in a movie. Bats just don't do that in the real world. They're very skilled flyers. ...So they'll get close to you, but they are not trying to get tangled up in you. Usually, you are a big, prominent thing in the environment, and these bats are insterested in using like the insects that circling over your head or have been attracted to your carbon dioxide or the moisture or just the warmth of your body. And lots of time there's big clouds of insects that are above you that are like mating and having a great time up there but this bat finds that a very rich foraging habitat.
STEVE: And where did that vampire thing come from?
CURT BLACK: Well, these bats are certainly not vampires for the most part. Out of the thousands of species of bats in the world, some three of them are actually vampires... But they definitely don't suck blood. They just make little divots out of you and lap-up the blood that comes out because of the anticoagulant that they're using in their saliva.
STEVE: But we're going to find them in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, or in a forest in new England?
CURT BLACK: Definitely not. So you'd have to go down almost to central Mexico, and then on south as far as northern South America, is kind of the range for those vampire type bats. Pretty much all of the bats in North America are just eating insects except for just a couple down in the southern end of Arizona and Texas, where you get a couple of nectar-feeders, and then one species that gets up into pretty much southern Florida that's a fruit-eating bat. Everybody else, out of the forty five species north of Mexico, is all about eating insects, which most people should like because if you don't like insects, you really ought to like bats.
STEVE: You want to know what it's like to go out bat-watching? Do you want to find out the best way to watch bats in your own favorite wilderness? Find out next week, in part two.
STEVE: My thanks to Curt Black, for providing all of the location-recordings for this show.
STEVE: We'd like to hear about your experiences with bats, your questions for Curt Black, or any comments about our show. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373.
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Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. You can help us help more folks to appreciate our wild public lands, by clicking on our support link to become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Insitute.
This has been The WildeBeat, program number one oh nine. Thank you for listening.
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Next time -- Creatures of the Night, part 2.