By Lisa W. Kroeber
Perhaps credit should be given to the western bluebird for delivering virologist Dr. Angeline Cromack into the front line of bat advocacy. When she moved to Corvallis, Oregon, twenty-two years ago, Cromack noticed a number of bluebirds flying near her house and called the Audubon Society to receive two free nesting boxes. She soon began volunteering with the Audubon Education Committee and presenting bird programs. Several years later, Cromack purchased a bat house she'd seen in a catalogue, began reading about bats, and became a BCI member. With help from her husband and son, she installed the house on their garage. The house stood idle for two years, but not so Cromack. She began to blend information about bats into her bird programs, eventually developing a new program to which she gave the ingenious name, "Feathery Wings and Leathery Wings."
"Since people like birds but are afraid of bats," Cromack says, "I thought I could show the similarities between the two and engender a good feeling about bats." In her lecture she points out that, like bats, some birds nest in cavities and some drink nectar. The oilbird in South America lives in caves and also echolocates. Birds such as the poorwill in eastern Oregon hibernate, and ospreys eat fish just like fisherman bats.
A 40-foot-long traveling exhibit and a slide show form the core of Cromack's presentation. Included in the exhibit are posters and pictures from calendars and periodicals, a bat house, relevant books and magazine articles, a "touch table," and a very popular black-light box that illuminates six UV-fluorescing bat drawings. When she wanted to add some bat vocalizations to her show, she called on bat biologist and BCI colleague Dr. M. Brock Fenton, who
generously sent her a copy of his own recordings, which she edited and had narrated. "Children especially like to hear the calls from mother to baby bat," she says with delight. The Fenton/Cromack tape includes the sounds of the Arctiid moth, made audible to human ears by slowing down the sounds. Kids are intrigued to learn that the moths, a potential meal for bats, can sometimes avoid being caught by making sounds that confuse the bats. The moths then fold their wings and drop to the ground to elude their pursuers.
Cromack now uses three different bat programs, which she and her education committee give to more than 2,000 listeners a year at schools, garden club meetings, and retirement homes, as well as to many professional groups such as Forest Service personnel, retired military officers, and retired teachers. Each slide program has four different scripts to make it suitable for audiences ranging from kindergartners to adults. She has also developed two ongoing and very successful bat events in Corvallis. In 1991, the director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Saturday Academy, a program hosted by Oregon State University for middle and high school students, asked Cromack to give a class on bats. The class has been so popular that many students have been turned away. After half a day of lessons indoors, Cromack takes her students on an evening field trip to view a nursery colony of 300 big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus) as they emerge from the attic of a 100-year-old building near the Willamette River. In addition to experiencing the wonder of the sight, the students gain experience with a bat detector and with the practice of counting emerging bats. For the last eight years, Cromack and her family have collected informal data about the changing numbers of bats in this colony from spring through early fall.
Just before Halloween every year, 100-175 people arrive at the Corvallis Public Library for "Bat Night." Some have driven as far as 50 miles. This second specialty bat event of Cromack's offers a program of narrated slides, the traveling exhibit, a lively question-and-answer period, refreshments, and activities for children (making a bat rubbing, bookmarks, and other crafts). Cromack has three different slide programs--including BCI's "Bats of America" and "Bats: Rain Forest Allies"--which she rotates so that people who come for several years learn different things.
"In Dr. Tuttle's pictures, the bats are so relaxed," she says, referring to slides she bought from BCI. "It makes it easy to show people how darling they are."
Cromack's traveling exhibit is constantly in demand. It has appeared at state and county fairs, Earth Day events, and at Oregon State University's Horner Museum. In addition, she has become a faithful purveyor of bat resources for her community. She provides libraries and schools with display cases full of information about bats, keeps a reference file in each, and is listed with several offices where people with bat questions or problems might call. Once a construction crew was uneasy about escaping bats whizzing by as they ripped out a ceiling in an old building. Cromack visited the site, calmed the crew, and then suggested a way the workers could allow the bats to exit without flying into their faces. She left them with a handful of BCI brochures.
On another occasion, Cromack and her husband loaded up their bat-catching gear and drove to the home of a woman who was frightened because she'd seen a bat in her house. They reassured the woman and gave her literature about bats and BCI (Cromack never misses an opportunity to give out BCI literature). The bat was not to be found, but the woman was so grateful she not only sent a contribution to BCI but also helped with the "Feathery Wings and Leathery Wings" program and became a member of the Audubon Education Committee that Cromack chairs.
Cromack's family shares her interest in bats in many ways. Her son, Kevin, monitors their bat house, which attracted a small bachelor colony of big brown bats two years after installation. The whole family often walks on summer evenings with a bat detector in hand, hoping to see bats emerging for the night.
One night, walking in a city park past a large pond where they often saw bats feeding, Cromack noticed that a couple of fountains were shooting wide plumes of water across the pond. Although it was prime feeding time, there were no bats. Thinking maybe the fountains were either keeping the insects away or frightening the bats, she called the director of parks and explained the situation. Not only did the director reset the fountain timer to avoid bat feeding time, but he also went on one of Cromack's field trips and later agreed to sponsor the Halloween Bat Night.
For ten years, Cromack and her family have been making good things happen for bats in Oregon. But her influence spreads far beyond, in the form of an enlightened and educated corps of her graduates. According to Cromack's precise count, she and her committee have taught a staggering total of 19,467 people--more than the entire student body of many universities. It's amazing what some bluebirds and a bat house can lead to in the hands of an inspired leader!
Lisa W. Kroeber is a BCI member and volunteer writer for BATS. She is also a remodeler of old homes, an author, photographer, wildlife volunteer, craftsperson, and retired junior high school teacher. She lives in San Francisco, California, and in Leverett, Massachusetts.
Holding up boards of different lengths, Cromack illustrates the wingspans of the world's largest and smallest bats for her "Bat Night" audience at the Corvallis Public Library.
Cromack, husband Kermit, and son Kevin, listen to signals on a bat detector while observing bats foraging over a pond.