Thursday, October 27, 2016

Appreciating bats before white-nose syndrome

Appreciating bats before white-nose syndrome

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Back in 2007, my children came into the studio with me to record a segment on bats as a way of celebrating Halloween. Hearing their young voices in that is an enjoyable trip down memory lane for me. But I want you to hear it today for another reason. At the time we recorded this segment, we were entirely unaware that a pathogen capable of killing bats on a massive scale had arrived in the U.S. So think of this as a happy, “before” piece. Next week, then, I’ll tell you about the “after.”   

As Halloween approaches I like to make time to appreciate the creatures of the night. The biggest fans of such creatures at my house, my children, Jane and Will, have joined me today to celebrate bats.

I suspect most young people of the present have grown up without being exposed to the kinds of myths about bats that previous generations grew up on. After all, these are kids who have read books with positive bat characters like Stellaluna and Silverwing.

But it can still be fun to bring up old myths, if only to contradict them.

Rob: Guys, are bats blind?

Jane and Will: Nooo.

Rob: Do bats like to get tangled in people’s hair?

Jane and Will: Oh, Please.

Rob: Are bats flying mice?

Jane and Will: Daaad.

Okay, okay. Scientists classify bats in their very own order, chiroptera. Worldwide there are around 1,000 species of bats, and they constitute a quarter of all mammal species alive today.

What’s so cool about bats?

Will: Bats are the only mammals that can truly fly. Other mammals, like so-called flying squirrels, can jump from a perch and glide. But bats can propel themselves through the air, and stay up for a long time. The wings of bats are made of very thin skin stretched over very long fingers. [Photo of little brown bat courtesy the Illinois Natural History Survey.]

Jane: Another thing that’s really cool about bats is how they use echolocation to find prey and avoid obstacles as they fly. This built-in sonar allows them to detect insects the size of gnats and objects as fine as human hair.

Will, I know you’re interested in those vicious vampire bats, the ones that suck people’s blood. What can you tell us about them?

Will: Well, vampire bats do drink blood and they can only go a couple of days without eating. But they try to feed on humans only as a last resort. Vampires, which live in Central and South America, prefer to feed on cattle or other wild animals.

Jane: Aside from vampire bats, there are bats that eat lizards, bats that eat birds, and bats that eat other bats. Even more bats feed on fruits and their juices. But 70% of all bats, including all of the species from North America, are insectivores.

Will: And bats can eat a lot of bugs. A male little brown bat eats about half of his body weight in mosquitoes and other insects per night.

Jane: And a female little brown bat that is nursing a pup eats more than her own weight nightly. By eating so many bugs bats perform an important service for people.

Dad: So, since you guys like bats so much, if you found one would you pick it up?

Will: No way--bats are wild animals, and we know they can bite.

Jane: Besides, although very few people in the U.S. get rabies anymore, those who do usually get it from the bite of an infected bat.

Dad: It’s best to consult with the state department of public health or a local animal control agency if you’re faced with the task of getting a bat out your house.

Will: In reality, bats have more to fear from people than people have to fear from bats.

Rob: About half of all bat species worldwide are threatened or endangered, including 4 of the 12 species that occur in Illinois.

Jane: To learn more about bats and what you can do to help protect them, check out the links at the Environmental Almanac website.

Homepage of Bat Conservation International

Articles from Illinois Natural History Survey Reports online:

Indiana Bats in Illinois

Species Spotlight: Little Brown Bat

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Fall brings sandhill crane spectacle to northwest Indiana

Fall brings sandhill crane spectacle to northwest Indiana [Originally posted 11/21/2013]

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The calls of sandhill cranes carry on the wind by some magic. Whether they are flying, and your view of them is obscured by a tree line, or they’re feeding in a harvested cornfield, where their rust-stained gray feathers make them difficult to pick out, you typically hear cranes before you see them.

And hearing sandhill cranes is a great pleasure. They talk quietly among themselves in family units, which include mother, father and one or two young of the year, which are called “colts.” (Colts stand as tall as their parents by Fall, but their plain gray “caps” are distinct from the bright red ones on adults.)

What’s more dramatic, though, is the way cranes call to one another as they collect in larger groups, either in flight or on the ground. To me these calls resonate in a mix that brings together something of pigeons cooing, something of geese honking and something less birdy, too—a stick rattled along serrated ridges on a wood block.

You may know by one means or another that sandhill cranes gather by the hundreds of thousands along the Platte River in western Nebraska during their migration north in the Spring. But did you know there’s scaled down version of that spectacle in western Indiana each Fall, one that’s much more accessible to us? It takes place at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, which is just 60 miles north of Lafayette.

Sandhill cranes that breed in the upper Midwest and central Canada begin gathering at Jasper-Pulaski near the end of September, and their numbers grow until mid- to late November, when they peak at about 20,000. Imagine that—20,000 of these majestic birds together in the same place less than
half a day’s drive from where you are now.

During their stopover in Indiana, the cranes keep a very regular schedule. At night, they roost in marshes at the reserve, where they’re
safe from predators such as coyotes. In the morning, for about a half hour either side of sunrise, they come together to socialize in Goose Pasture, a vast field that’s overlooked by an observation platform.

The cranes then head out into nearby agricultural fields where they spend the day feeding. There they take advantage of corn that was lost in the harvest, as well as a wide range of other foods—everything from plant materials to worms, insects, mice and snakes.

Your best bet for seeing cranes up close is to cruise the gravel roads south of Jasper-Pulaski (carefully, of course, with respect for the people who live there) and pull over quietly to watch them feed.

The real crane spectacle at Jasper-Pulaski takes place in the hour around sunset, as they congregate again at Goose Pasture before heading back to the marshes for the night. At that time flocks pour in from every direction, and the calls of birds already on the ground blend with the calls of birds in the air to create music like none you’ll hear elsewhere.

This gathering also affords great opportunities to see the cranes “dance”; they bow, they jump into the air, they flap their enormous wings and generally wind each other up, then settle down again, sometimes in a wave of activity that ripples across the field.

If you go to see the sandhill cranes at Jasper-Pulaski you’ll definitely want to have binoculars, and if you have access to a spotting scope bring it along, too. And take extra warm clothes. You wouldn’t to be driven from the observation platform by cold before the twilight show is over.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

An appreciation for U of I artist Deke Weaver's BEAR

An appreciation for U of I artist Deke Weaver's BEAR

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So much of conservation is about the concrete. Stop a pipeline here, plant milkweed for monarchs there, try to move the levers of political power with an email or a protest. Even when we turn our attention to climate change, with its remote effects, we’re on to wind turbines and solar power before very long. 

But I think it’s healthy for individual people and for cultures more broadly to have access to spaces where thought and communication are liberated from these usual channels, spaces that enable us to inhabit other realities for a time. This is why I found participating in the fall chapter of U of I artist Deke Weaver’s performance “Bear” at Meadowbrook Park recently so powerful. 

The other reality in which “Bear” is set resembles ones we’ve seen in other stories. It’s a future where, according to “Field Guide to the Bears,” which participants received along with their tickets: “Greenland slides into the Atlantic. The power grid collapses. The Totten Glacier crumbles, West Antarctica tumbles into the sea. Sea levels rise twelve feet, and now, 2020, we’ve got forty percent of the world’s human population leaving the coasts and heading inland.”

In the common fictions of our culture, such circumstances require action by a hero or team of heroes with mad quantitative skills and technical ingenuity, ones who apply the same human traits that produce the problems to fix them. In the world of “Bear,” however, heroes are replaced with participants, and technical fixes are out, as well. “To put the genie back in the bottle,” the guide explains, “we need to bring back the bears. We’re going to do this through outreach, education, and walking meditation. . . we will bring back the bears by telling and retelling a story, by walking a path for hours and hours. Our hope is that the bears will be able to sense our sincere intent.”

What kind of thinking is that? 

The setup for “Bear” required participants to hold off on such questions. “Rangers” who never broke character greeted us on our arrival and led us on the hour-plus meditative walk. In addition, before setting out we were asked to power off phones and not to speak among ourselves. The fact that our walk took place in the dark on a muddy trail hemmed in by head-high prairie plants, and that a light rain was falling most of the time we were out also helped create an atmosphere that encouraged people to let go a little.

I won’t recount all of our stops, but say they included stories and folklore, as well as nuggets of information about bears, which were especially pleasing to the literal-minded among us. 

The fall installment of “Bear” concluded in the Urbana Park District’s barn at Meadowbrook, which had become a den for the purpose. There, unspeaking, costumed bear dancers performed and then invited participants to join them. Following that, we became bears by crawling farther into the den and putting on plastic masks. As bears, we listened to Deke Weaver tell a story in which the bodily boundaries between human, bear, and even tree at points dissolved.  

I admit I’m still not entirely sure what to make of that, but I’ll never knowingly pass up a chance to hear Weaver tell a story again. I also encourage you to check out the Winter and Spring chapters of “Bear,” and the rest of the larger project of which it’s a component, Weaver’s “Unreliable Bestiary.”