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Volunteer Newsletter: Batty for Bats

An Eastern Red Bat nestled in an oak leaf at Bunker Hill. Photo by Jane Balaban.
An Eastern Red Bat nestled in an oak leaf at Bunker Hill. Photo by Jane Balaban.

Bats have a pretty bad reputation, largely because they are feared and misunderstood.  These fears and misconceptions about bats have only been perpetuated by scary movies and sensationalized reporting in the media, but the reality is that bats are passive. They actually play an important role in our local ecosystems, mainly in controlling insect populations. In fact, a single bat can consume 3,000 insects in one night including the pesky ones like mosquitoes. You’re welcome. They are also a great barometer of the conditions of our environment because where there are bats, there are insects. And where there are insects, there is less toxicity, greater biodiversity and so on.

In Illinois, we have 12 different bat species that spend at least part of their lives here.  Seven of the 12 species can be found right here in Cook County, including Big Brown, Little Brown, Red, Hoary, Silver-haired, Tri-colored, and Northern Long-eared.  Our local savannas and woodlands, especially those containing a body of water, are ideal bat habitats.

Jim Chelsvig, the Education Manager of the FPCC’s Department of Conservation and Experiential Programming, is a bat enthusiast and has had many opportunities during his career to work with bats. In August, he was approached by Brigit Holt, University of Illinois Extension Program Coordinator, to help facilitate a bat hike for the Master Naturalists in the Forest Preserves. “Brigit called and asked, ‘Hey, can you get me a permit for an evening bat hike?’ and I said ‘Permit? What permit?  I’m you’re permit!’” Jim recalls with a chuckle. “Let’s go!  You think I would pass this up?”

The group of about 20 Master Naturalists headed out to Caldwell Woods, which Jim calls a “hotspot” for bats, and fired up a bat detector. This handy little device converts a bat’s ultrasonic echolocation calls to audible frequencies, allowing the software to identify the species. Jim says these devices are claimed to be about 80% accurate. On the Master Naturalist bat hike, the detector picked up six of the seven species found in Cook County – all except for the Northern Long-eared bat, which is fairly rare.

Jim welcomes any opportunity to teach people about bats and help them understand the important role they play, but he often has to address the fear factor first. “Bats are usually harmless unless you go to handle one. Bat bites are usually defensive. A lot of times if you find a bat on the ground in the daytime, it is compromised. Put a bucket over it, keep children and pets away and call animal control.  If you find a bat in your house, call animal control and have the animal tested. Odds are the bat hanging on your curtain is not rabid, but you want to be sure.”

When asked why he loves bats so much Jim laughs and says, “That’s a tough question.  Maybe because so many others don’t? They are the only flying mammal – flying squirrels don’t fly; they glide. People think of them as flying rats, or flying mice, but in fact, they are much more closely related to dogs than they are to rodents. I’m also fascinated by their use of echolocation to find food. Then you have the Hoary Bat and the Red Bat, which have beautifully colored fur. They’re really very pretty little animals.”

If you love bats too and want to help them thrive in the Forest Preserves, the best way to do that is by joining a habitat restoration workday. Volunteers work tirelessly year round to ensure that our local ecosystems can sustain diverse plant and animal species.