Thursday, December 30, 2004

Building a Lasting University Environment (BLUE) Initiative

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Do you conserve energy at home? Do you limit use of your car to cut down on pollution and save gas? Do you pay attention to the amount of waste your household generates and make sure it’s disposed of properly?

Three cheers for you if you do. Many of us align ourselves with the larger goals of environmentalism by adopting some or all of these practices, and when such efforts are taken together they help keep our world liveable.

But think of the difference you could make if the power of your environmentally conscious decisions were multiplied by a factor of ten, or twenty, or even more. That will give you a sense of the impact administrators with the University of Illinois’ Facilities & Services are aiming for with an initiative called Building a Lasting University Environment, or BLUE for short.

The BLUE initiative may be most visible in the ten Global Electric Motorcars, or GEMs, that Facilities and Services bought last year to replace the scooters, pickups, and sedans used by various workers. Although the batteries that power these vehicles do require charging, the vehicles themselves produce no emissions and very little noise as they zip around campus. As an added bonus, it is estimated that each will save a thousand dollars in fuel costs over the course of its lifetime.

Some of the less visible aspects of the BLUE initiative may actually have much greater long-term “green” value. For example, the Division of Planning is working to incorporate sustainable design features in the College of Business’s instructional facility to be built starting in early 2006. The design team projects that these features--which include super energy-efficient windows, rooftop solar panels, extensive use of natural lighting and a finely tuned heating and cooling system--will reduce the facility’s energy use by 25 to 30 percent in comparison to a building with a more conventional design.

Another of the most ambitious BLUE efforts is the environmentally friendly renovation of one of the largest parking lots on campus. Work on lot F-23, at the intersection of Florida and South Lincoln, will be guided by UIUC engineering faculty and others. It is intended as a model and test site for measures to reduce the amount and environmental toxicity of parking lot runoff.

Other aspects of the BLUE initiative are as wide-ranging as the reach of Facilities and Services itself, which employs more than 1400 people on the UIUC campus. They include day-to-day efforts such as using more native species in campus landscaping, to larger scale projects, such as supporting the formation of a local chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.

Of course energy-efficient buildings and eco-friendly parking lots don’t eliminate the need for individual conservation efforts or for environmental regulations that protect the public interest. But the leadership and employees of Facilities & Services at the U of I are to be applauded for doing their part to promote a sustainable campus.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Rebirth of the Boneyard Creek

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Late last April I got an excited e-mail from a friend telling me he’d been out after work with his fly rod and had found a little stream where he caught twenty fish before heading home for dinner. Now, before you write this off as a fisherman’s tall tale, I’ll admit on his behalf that none of the fish involved was bigger than your hand, nor were they trout or bass or any of the other species angling writers gush about. Except for a few striped shiners and a single grass pickerel they were all green sunfish, which are known primarily for their capacity to tolerate degraded aquatic conditions.

However lowly those fish, though, what really surprised me was the fact that my friend had caught anything at all, since the little stream he had discovered was in fact the Boneyard Creek.

Listeners whose familiarity with Champaign Urbana and the U of I campus goes back more than ten years may recall the Boneyard as the waterway that used to flood Campustown—a headache to business owners and civic officials, and a source of amusement for students who took advantage of the opportunity to canoe the intersection of Fourth and Green. Barring anything really out of the ordinary in local weather those days are gone, thanks to the recent completion of the first phase of a thirty-year plan worked out between the City of Champaign and the U of I in 1994.

As a result of that project, nearly all of the creek that was once visible between First and Wright Streets in Champaign now lies buried beneath a rather unprepossessing linear park.

The case is much different on the U of I engineering campus, however, where planners took into account environmental and aesthetic values as they reshaped the stream. Instead of burying it, they have drawn attention to it, incorporating features that give it a natural appearance and make it hospitable to aquatic life.

The retaining walls there are faced with block and natural stone rather than smooth concrete or corrugated metal. The channel is marked by some of the variation characteristic of free-flowing streams—deeper pools, shallow riffles, and even a few meanders. And all of this is complemented by landscaping that uses native plants to further the impression of a natural area. Most welcome of all, a person need not risk life or limb to get near the creek, thanks to grassy slopes that lead right to the water’s edge at a number of points.

And it’s not just low-rent anglers who have taken an interest in the Boneyard’s fish, which returned to the stretch of creek flowing through campus when a barrier downstream was removed as part of the reconstruction. In a report yet to be released, an undergraduate student from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering has undertaken to assess the biological integrity of the creek by studying its fish community. The data she has collected would rank the Boneyard well below our area’s more pristine streams—say the Middle Fork and lower reaches of the Salt Fork of the Vermilion River—but well above the lifeless stretches where the Boneyard itself runs through a featureless concrete channel.

While there are some hard realities that will limit the Boneyard’s potential for recovery—most of its flow is constituted by urban runoff, and the channel must be maintained to move massive amounts of storm water—it’s nonetheless heartening to see this creek celebrated rather than buried on the U of I campus.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Poorly Designed Lighting Creates Light Pollution

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The Northern Lights are a treat seldom experienced in east-central Illinois, but they made one of their rare appearances here earlier this fall. Unfortunately, many of us were prevented from seeing this spectacular show by the glow of our own artificial lights in the sky.

Sky glow, which obscures our view of the heavens at night, is the most commonly recognized effect of bad lighting, or light pollution.

But bad lighting also causes a number of other problems. It creates glare, which is light that shines in our eyes rather than on things we need to see, and light trespass, unwanted light that strays into our yards and windows. Bad lighting is also the source of what some call light clutter, the unappealing and visually confusing nighttime environment so common in modern cities.

Beyond its undesirable visual effects, bad lighting also wastes energy—a lot of it! One reasonable calculation puts the cost of wasted light in the U.S. at one billion dollars a year. The energy used to produce that wasted light would equal at least six million tons of coal, or twenty-three million barrels of oil.

Why is such waste so widely accepted? Because we’ve come to equate more light with better safety and security. But that is simply not the case. In fact, overly bright, misdirected light can actually do more harm than good. Light that shines in our eyes prevents us from seeing hazards as we walk or drive at night. Widely scattered, bright light also creates hard shadows, which can conceal criminals while making victims visible. Worst of all, excessive, poorly designed lighting can make us feel safe when we should actually be on guard.

The principles of good lighting are really pretty simple. Good lighting shines down, only where it is needed, rather than sideways, where it causes glare, or up, where it causes sky glow. Good lighting is bright enough to light only what needs to be illuminated, and does not create harsh transition zones between light and dark areas. Good lighting is also energy efficient and on only when it is needed.

It’s actually pretty easy to spot well-designed light fixtures once you know what to look for. They have the light source high, with a top and sides that direct light downward. It’s worth noting that you can illuminate even large areas such as parking lots and ball fields with such fixtures. The parking lots of the Champaign Public Library and Pages for All Ages Bookstore in Savoy are two good local examples.

In poorly designed fixtures the light source is not fully shielded, either on the sides or at the top. The worst offenders are drop-lens cobra fixtures—the ones that loom over our arterial streets in town and the lighted portions of many interstates. Most locales have a policy of replacing these as they wear out with far superior flat lens fixtures that shine light only where it’s supposed to go. Other poorly designed fixtures include the super bright barn light fixtures on found on power company poles, and decorative globes that shine light in all directions

You can do your part to reduce light pollution by replacing poorly designed fixtures on your property with well-designed ones. And remember as you do this that you’ll likely recover the cost of new fixtures with the money you save on electricity to operate them. If you want to go beyond that, check in with the Champaign-Urbana Astronomical Society or the U of I Astronomical Society concerning local efforts to promote dark skies.

With good lighting we’ve got nothing to lose, and an entire universe to gain.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

The Mahomet Aquifer, an Underappreciated Resource

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Do you know where your water comes from? Most of us don’t think twice about that, as long as the water flows when we turn on the faucet. But here in east-central Illinois many of us draw our water from the Mahomet aquifer, a largely under appreciated natural resource.

The aquifer is a layer of sand and gravel whose top lies between one and two hundred feet beneath the ground we walk on. It was deposited there in the valley carved into bedrock by the prehistoric Mahomet river more than five hundred thousand years ago. The clay-rich sediments that now cover the aquifer and constitute the ground as we know it were left by glaciers that later came down from the north and trapped the sand and gravel in the Mahomet bedrock valley. The aquifer holds more water than the finer soils above it because the coarser grains of sand and gravel leave more in-between space for water to fill.

Its great size is one of the remarkable characteristics of the Mahomet aquifer. It stretches about a hundred and twenty-five miles long, from its eastern edge north of Danville to its western edge near Peoria, and it’s typically from four to fourteen miles wide. The aquifer lies beneath 1.26 million acres and crosses the boundaries of fifteen counties, as well as many other political entities. Geologists calculate that the Mahomet aquifer holds about four trillion gallons of water, about the volume of water that flows past St. Louis in the Mississippi river every two and a half weeks.

The water in the Mahomet aquifer is of remarkably high quality. Most of it is between one thousand and twelve thousand years old, which means it fell as rain at a time before it could pick up the industrial pollutants and synthetic pesticides that plague our surface water today. Water from the aquifer is also free of bacteria harmful to humans, having been isolated from the sources of such organisms for so long.

The only contaminant that poses an immediate concern for users of the aquifer is arsenic, which occurs naturally at concentrations high enough to pose a risk to humans at various sites throughout the region. Municipal systems remove arsenic, but well users must test for it.

The most pressing question concerning the Mahomet aquifer is how much water we can pump from this remarkable resource without depleting it. The frustrating non-answer to that question is, we don’t know—not yet, anyway. In order to find that answer, we’ve got to fund more science.

Beyond the issue of identifying sustainable levels of withdrawal from the Mahomet aquifer, we will eventually need to grapple with the question of how that water is allocated. That’s a complicated question since aquifers don’t conform to political boundaries. But it’s also one best addressed before anyone’s well runs dry.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Environmentally Conscious Consumption

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If you have wondered about the environmental impact of your consumer choices, but find yourself without the time or energy to pursue such issues, let me introduce you to the seven rules of responsible construction. I’ve adapted these from a book called The Consumer’s Guide to Environmental Choices, published by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The point of these rules is to help concerned citizens focus their attention on the things that really matter, and stop worrying about the things that don’t.

1. Pay special attention to major purchases. Our biggest impacts on the environment stem from our biggest decisions—how large a house we live in, how we heat and cool that house, whether we drive and what kind of vehicle we drive, whether we spring for energy-efficient major appliances. If you make environmentally sound choices on these questions you have already done most of your work.

2. Liberate yourself from anxiety about unimportant decisions. Every once in a while we become obsessed with small choices—cloth versus disposable diapers, paper versus plastic grocery bags, that sort of thing. In these cases it is possible to make distinctions based on the raw materials and energy used to produce items, or the problems associated with disposing of them. But there are always tradeoffs involved, and we’d do better to focus our attention on more important questions.

3. Pay attention to weight. If you’re unsure about the environmental impact a decision might have, think in terms of how heavy the product in question is. Other things being equal, weight’s a rough indicator of how much thought you should devote to the purchase or disposal of a product, and heavy things deserve more attention than light things.

4. Think Quantitatively. If you want to conserve water, start where you use the most. The average family of four can save more than two thousand gallons of water a month by running the washing machine only when it is full, and a comparable amount by installing a low-flow showerhead. Since these are the largest uses of water in the typical home, it makes sense to begin conservation measures with them.

5. Lead. If you can be the first person on your block to an exceptionally fuel-efficient vehicle, do it. If you can makeover your yard to eliminate the need for watering, pesticides and fertilizers, do that. Most people are open to learning about ways to help the environment.

6. Buy things that help the environment. When you choose to buy recycled products you help to maintain the market for recycled materials. When you buy things like water-saving faucets and showerheads you conserve and important resource for years to come.

7. Buy thoughtfully. We’re continually surrounded by messages to buy stuff—at this time of year more than ever. Yet when we give ourselves time to reflect, few of us believe that the possession of more stuff equates with a more meaningful life.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Wild Turkeys in Illinois

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With all of the Thanksgiving Day press devoted to domestic turkeys—how many we’re going to eat this week, how best to cook them, etcetera—you probably weren’t aware of this fact, but we’re living in the age of the wild turkey. That’s according to Patrick Hubert, a wildlife ecologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey. Says Hubert, “It is a good time to be alive if you are a turkey, turkey hunter, or turkey biologist in Illinois.”

This has not always been the case.

Wild turkeys were abundant in Illinois prior to European settlement, but their numbers declined steadily during the 1800s due to over-hunting and the clearing of forests, which are a necessary component of turkey habitat. The state legislature closed turkey hunting in 1903, in an effort to preserve the remaining populations. That measure proved to be too little too late, though, and by 1910 wild turkeys had been eliminated from Illinois altogether.

Some turkey habitat was regained as marginal farms in the southern and western parts of the state were abandoned and returned to forest during the first half of the twentieth century. This fact gave hope to state efforts at turkey reintroduction, which began in 1959. The birds involved in this program were obtained from other states where turkey populations had already rebounded in exchange for animals that were doing well here—Canada geese, largemouth bass, bobwhite quail. From the 1970s through the year 2000 Illinois also transplanted turkeys from areas where they were thriving to suitable habitat that had not yet been re-colonized.

Illinois now boasts wild turkeys in just about every habitat that will support them, and recent estimates put the state population at 135,000. Harvests by hunters break records from one year to the next, with this year’s spring take statewide surpassing fifteen thousand birds.

Whether you hunt them or appreciate them from a distance, wild turkeys are fascinating birds. For one thing, they’re big. Adult males, or gobblers, measure about four feet from bill tip to tail tip and weigh from seventeen to twenty-one pounds on average. Hens are smaller, measuring closer to three feet long and generally weighing from eight to eleven pounds, but they are still large birds. Despite their size wild turkeys can also be very fast when they need to be. They can hit speeds up to twenty-five miles per hour running, and they can fly at speeds of up to fifty-miles an hour in short bursts to escape from predators.

While most of us weren’t noticing their comeback, grain farmers were developing the suspicion that wild turkeys were damaging crops. A recent study by researchers in Indiana exonerated them on that charge, though.

Turkeys had been tagged as suspects because they show up during daylight hours in corn and soybean fields where crop damage has occurred at night. The real culprits turn out to be deer and raccoons, whose nocturnal activity accounted for ninety-five percent of the damage in the fields studied. The suspect turkeys, it turns out, were dining on waste grain and insects.

Would the wild turkey have made a better national symbol than the bald eagle? Most people know that Benjamin Franklin thought so. I’ve never been able to see that myself, but I take great pleasure in knowing that they’re back to stay in Illinois.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Pitch for Book, Creating Habitats and Homes for Illinois Wildlife

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Are you nagged by the feeling you should’ve done some holiday gift shopping already? Here’s a natural solution to ease some of your discomfort. It’s a book published by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the University of Illinois called Creating Habitats and Homes for Illinois Wildlife.

Now if the title of this book conjures up images of a how-to manual for building birdhouses, please listen, because that’s not what it’s about. The book does contain extensive practical advice, but it’s advice about creating landscapes that are hospitable to wild creatures.

Before I talk about the practical aspects of the book, though, I want to emphasize that it contains other elements that will make it attractive to folks who have no immediate plans to makeover their property.

Chief among these are the many first class photographs that call to mind the plants, animals, and landscapes we Illinoisians have to protect and restore. These include striking images of common creatures—red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, white-tailed deer and the like. Such images are complemented by equally artful depictions of uncommon subjects: a stunning shot of fungi on a rotting log; a short eared owl arrested in flight, its intense gaze fixed on the viewer; a tight shot of a spicebush swallowtail caterpillar, its lurid green and yellow skin and oversized false eyes reminiscent of a creature out of science fiction.

In addition to its beautiful photographs, Creating Homes and Habitats provides readers with important information for understanding wildlife issues. For example, one chapter provides historical perspective, explaining how agriculture and other development over the past two-hundred years has left Illinois forty-ninth among the states in the amount of intact natural areas remaining. Another chapter includes an overview of ecological principles. This helps people understand why it makes sense to do things one way or another on their own land, and also helps citizens participate in matters of how to manage land held by other private entities, and public policy.

The practical chapters of Creating Homes and Habitat are divided according to habitat types: there is a chapter on grasslands including prairies, a chapter on woodlands, a chapter on wetlands and other aquatic habitat, and a chapter on agricultural areas.

More to the point for most people, who live in urban or suburban settings, this book provides practical direction for managing backyards and other small tracts for wildlife. As the authors point out, while many of our individual yards are not large, their collective value is quite significant; residential areas cover 2.5% of the state.

When our yards are landscaped with wildlife in mind they serve to maintain healthy populations of the resident species we enjoy seeing—toads, garter snakes, cardinals and cottontails—and they provide a crucial network of stopovers for migratory birds in the spring and fall.

The book, Creating Homes and Habitats for Illinois Wildlife can help you or someone on your gift list provide and important boost for wildlife in our state.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Threats to National Environmental Policy

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By the time last week’s election took place, the lack of attention to environmental issues in the campaign had become its own news story. That’s unfortunate, because it allowed candidates to run without articulating positions on matters that most Americans hold dear. And in the past four years, the Bush administration has pursued a series of radical challenges to the national legislation that has done us so much good in the past thirty years—legislation such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

Some of the threats to these laws aroused such broad opposition that the administration was forced to abandon them, but others were simply put on hold. These threats are sure to be reasserted in the next four years. If we’re not vigilant in opposing them, we stand to lose a lot of hard-fought ground.

Take the Clean Water Act, for example. Passed by Congress in 1972 and signed by Richard Nixon, it has marked the beginning of a broad recovery for our nation’s rivers and lakes. The policy of the current administration has been directed toward narrowing enforcement of the Clean Water Act, putting at risk wetlands and waters that have in the past been protected. We’re talking about twenty million acres of wetlands and other waters that provide wildlife habitat, protect us from floods, and recharge our groundwater supplies.

The Clean Air Act, last revised in 1990 and designed to reduce air pollution over time, has also been subjected to threats that would greatly diminish its effectiveness. Most notable among these are rule changes that would allow thousands of aging industrial facilities including power plants, refineries, and chemical plants to be updated and expanded without the improvements in pollution control that the Clean Air Act was designed to require.

The Endangered Species Act, passed by bipartisan majorities in the house and senate and signed by Nixon in 1973, has also been the target of systematic attacks under the Bush administration. These have included the refusal of Bush agency officials to comply with court orders, the dismissal of scientific input when it conflicted with administration goals, failure to request necessary funding, and footdragging on the matter of listing new species.

It would be pleasing to think that we could determine the condition of the environment we leave for future generations by our good will and individual efforts—things like driving less, conserving energy at home, cutting down on our use of harmful chemicals.

But individual efforts are only part of a larger equation.

We’re where we are today because we the people have acted through our elected representatives to protect our water, our air, our natural heritage—public goods all—through sensible regulation. Let’s not lose sight of that in the next four years.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Busey Woods Boardwalk

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There are many reasons not to get outdoors at this time of year: short days, cool temperatures, wind, rain, you name it. But the rewards of an excursion into the woods do not disappear with the departure of agreeable weather. And thanks to the recent completion of a half-mile long boardwalk, you can now enjoy Busey Woods in Urbana without even getting your feet muddy.

On the chance you’re not familiar with it, Busey Woods is a fifty-nine-acre natural area adjacent to the Anita Purves Nature Center just north of Crystal Lake Park. It’s a remnant of what was called the Big Grove, ten square miles of forest that stood in a sea of tallgrass prairie before the settlement of Champaign County by European Americans.

Busey Woods is notable for its mature oak and hickory trees, as well as the vernal pools that mark the former streambed of the Saline Branch, the stream which now runs through a straightened channel along the eastern edge of the woods. Had it not been for the efforts of local citizens, Busey woods would have been destroyed to make way for industrial development in the 1960s.

Given the scarcity of natural areas in east central Illinois, Busey Woods is an important home for wildlife, from smallmouth salamanders that breed in the pools, to red fox, deer, owls, and other forest birds. It is also an essential stopover and excellent spot for birdwatching during spring and fall migrations.

According to Derek Liebert, Natural Areas Coordinator for the Urbana Park District, the primary motive for the boardwalk was to provide increased access to the woods. Park District personnel anticipate that the boardwalk will make the woods accessible to several new groups of users, including people with physical restrictions, parents with children in strollers, and the like.

They also anticipate that the boardwalk, which is visible from the adjacent road, will prompt people who might have just driven by before to recognize the woods as a public natural area.

The boardwalk also compensates for the wet nature of the woods, especially the vernal pools. After a significant rainfall, particularly in the spring when the Nature Center conducts large numbers of school programs, these ponds breach their banks and flood large portions of the woods.

The boardwalk itself is constructed of non-arsenic treated white pine and features three pop-out overlook areas with benches. These pop-outs will be incorporated into the many environmental programs that are conducted in the woods. During one such program, for example, children use dip nets to sample the diverse aquatic communities of the north pond.

The park district is now working with Taylor Studios of Rantoul to design interpretive panels to be stationed along the boardwalk next spring. These panels will call attention to seasonal changes, provide history, explain management practices, and introduce ecological concepts.

The park district is also currently restoring, planting, and seeding the few areas that were adversely impacted during boardwalk construction. Volunteers interested in helping out with such restoration projects are encouraged to contact the Anita Purves Nature Center to sign up for one of the regularly scheduled workdays.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Bat Time of Year

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As Halloween draws near, you’re likely run into more bats than at any other time of year. Not the live ones, of course, but the other kind: bat decals on windows, rubber bats hung on elastic, bat pencil erasers, bat cookies, and more. My six-year-old son got the ball rolling at our house with a black bat he cut from construction paper more than a week ago.

Whether bats are as widely feared and reviled as they once were seems to me an open question. After all, children and the grown-ups who read with them know well the story of Stellaluna, the baby bat who drops into a bird’s nest. Nationwide, people now put up specially designed houses to attract bats to their yards. And the city of Austin, Texas has even embraced bat watching as a tourist attraction. It’s estimated that 100,000 people visit the Congress Avenue Bridge each year to watch the evening departure of the one and a half million Mexican free-tailed bats that roost there.

For the record, though—

Bats are not blind.

Bats do not fly into people’s hair.

Bats do not carry rabies. Like other mammals they can contract and transmit this disease, but cases of humans being infected with rabies as a result of contact with bats are exceedingly rare.

Bats are not flying mice, and this distinction is important for bat conservation. Mouse populations can rebound from catastrophic declines because mice give birth to multiple young and produce multiple generations in a year. Bat populations, on the other hand, do not rebound well. Individual bats may live from twenty to thirty years, but in most bat species pairs typically produce only pup per year.

If you feel an involuntary shiver when you contemplate bats, think about how bats might respond to us.

We’ve got these great big eyes, but in the dark we’re left to feel our way forward with our hands. Bats have echolocation, their own built in sonar, which allows them to detect insects the size of gnats and objects as fine as human hair.

We’ve got these hands with opposable thumbs--to us, the wonder of the world. But can we use them to fly? No way. Bats are the only mammal that can truly fly, thanks to specially adapted arms and four greatly elongated fingers, which are what bats use to spread their wing membranes in flight and fold them at rest.

Come winter we’ve got to work hard to stay warm, but most bats simply hibernate. Say you’re a little brown bat, one of the most common of the twelve bat species found in Illinois. You get to a cave in the southern part of your range that’s cold but not freezing, you let your body temperature drop to about 40 degrees Fahrenheit, decrease your heart rate to five beats per minute, and you hang out from November until March or April.

It should be noted that when bats are not just hanging around they play an important role in the ecosystems they inhabit. All twelve species of bats found in Illinois, for example, feed on insects, including enormous quantities of mosquitoes and agricultural pests.

An adult male little brown bat eats approximately half of his body weight in insects per night. And a lactating female little brown bat eats more than her own weight nightly.

So if the thought of living with bats makes you shiver, think of where we’d be without them.


Articles from Illinois Natural History Survey Reports online:

Indiana Bats in Illinois

Species Spotlight: Little Brown Bat