by Dr. M. Brock Fenton
One of the main problems facing those trying to improve the image of bats is the lack of opportunity most people have to meet one. I collaborate with the National Capital Commission, an agency responsible for many recreational activities around Ottawa (Canada), and put on "bat walks" to allow people to meet bats face-to-face. Bat walks are now a regular summer interpretive event in our area.
Several ingredients seem to be necessary for a successful bat walk. They include bats, an audience, and interpreters prepared to act as intermediaries. Working in cooperation with an established organization, such as a conservation authority, park or museum interpretive program, is a good idea.
Live bats are essential and should be available for people to meet. It is best to rely on a small local species. We always use Little Brown Bats (Myotis lucifugus) captured the night before. This species is a good choice for several reasons. It is one of the most common and widespread bats in North America and frequently is encountered in people's homes. It also has tiny teeth that rarely can inflict a painful bite. The latter point is important, since our demonstration bats are newly caught wild animals that may attempt to bite in self-defense.
We hold the bat gently but firmly with one wing partly spread. This way, if it bites, only our fingers will be bitten. We never wear gloves during these presentations. Using gloves, or not being relaxed while handling the bats, would contradict our message that they are delicate and interesting creatures. We do stress, however, that only persons trained to handle bats should do so. Spectators are able to see the animal's face and eyes and touch the wings and fur (most will want to). Having several people in the crowd presenting the bats gives more people a chance to see them and ask questions.
We always try to use adult bats, and make sure that each has had a good drink of water before we get started, as they easily become dehydrated. Events are scheduled for the hour before dusk so the animals can be released when the program is over.
The audience is almost as important as the bats. If the program is held in collaboration with an existing interpretive center (a campground program at a park, for example) an audience is almost guaranteed. If not, make sure there is adequate publicity. In six years of bat walks around Ottawa, we have had as many as 800 participants (at a campground), and crowds of 75-200 are common when we hold the events as separate entities in city parks.
While people are meeting a bat they usually want to know about rabies, and whether or not the animal will bite. Others want to know how to keep bats out of their houses, while some are interested in various details about bat biology-from reproduction to life-span and echolocation. Most people are astonished at the bat's small size and may think you are showing them a baby.
Interpreters may belong to the organization providing the facilities, but they must know how to handle the animals. It also helps if they know something about the individual bat. Where did you catch it? How old is this one? What is its name? Does it have rabies? I have been fortunate to have graduate or undergraduate students to help take the burden off of interpreters. The size of the crowd dictates the number of interpreters needed.
I suspect that just the chance to meet some bats and ask questions would constitute a very useful program. We, however, have added a few variations to introduce different aspects of the animal's biology and behavior.
To emphasize bats' behavior in the air, we mark them with light tags, Cyalume® filled capsules devised by Buchler (Journal of Mammalogy, 57:173-176, 1976). Using a syringe, we put luminescent Cyalume® fluid into empty gelatine pill capsules (size 000). Surgical adhesive is used to glue these light tags to the bats' backs or to their venters where the wings join the body (capsules fall off within hours without harm to the bat). We release the light-tagged bats at dark and the audience is able to watch their movements. If you are lucky, the bats may forage nearby. Most people are impressed by the aerial maneuvers of the bats, and children often want a light tag to take home. Cyalume® usually can be purchased at local sporting good stores, particularly those specializing in diving supplies. The empty gelatine capsules and the surgical cement can be obtained from large pharmacies.
If you have access to a bat detector, it is possible to add another dimension to the program by detecting and broadcasting echolocation calls of the released bats. If there are other bats foraging in the area, you also can tune in on their hunting behavior while making the point that each bat species produces a different kind of call. It is easy to distinguish the high repetition rate of a bat's feeding buzz, made as it pursues its prey, from the calls of a bat searching for a target.
There are several kinds of bat detectors, from the relatively simple, tuned crystal microphones sold as "leak detectors," to the more sophisticated models relying on a different microphone system. I prefer the QMC Mini Detector (QMC Instruments Ltd., 229 Mile End Road, London El 4AA, United Kingdom) because it costs less than $100 and is versatile. The important point is hooking up the output from the detector to a speaker or public address system so the calls can be broadcast.
You may limit bat-detecting portions of the program to the release of bats used earlier, or stroll about the park detecting other bats. Some can be heard from up to a hundred feet.
We end the evening by showing slides of bats, emphasizing aspects of their diversity and biology not previously covered.
Our bat walk programs are very successful and allow us to provide valuable information. More importantly, people may meet bats closeup. I hope people thus exposed will find it very difficult to be afraid of animals they have touched and looked in the eye. So, if you are familiar with the local bats and want to make their lot a bit easier, organize a bat walk; you are sure to find the experience rewarding and stimulating.
(Editor's Note: BCI member, Jack Schmidling, recommends the Archer Mini Amplifier-speaker from Radio Shack for broadcasting bat sounds, and a 300,000 candlepower Nightblaster hand light from K-Mart or an Acmelite Cameralight, available from video dealers, for briefly illuminating detected bats. Either light runs 10 minutes on a 12 volt, 5 amp. hour, sealed, lead-acid, maintenance-free battery.)
Dr. Brock Fenton introduces people to bats and their night life sounds through bat
walks. Photo courtesy Dr. Gary P. Bell.