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Boxes help protect at-risk species of bats in Chilliwack

Members of the Eastern Fraser Valley Young Naturalists Club search for worms after three of the seven bat boxes they built were installed, each atop a decommissioned hydro pole, at Camp River Wilderness Area on April 6.  - JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS
Members of the Eastern Fraser Valley Young Naturalists Club search for worms after three of the seven bat boxes they built were installed, each atop a decommissioned hydro pole, at Camp River Wilderness Area on April 6.
— image credit: JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS

A group of young naturalists are helping several species of bats after building special boxes for nursing female bats and their babies, known as pups.

Of the 10 species of bats in the Fraser Valley, half of them are at risk of being endangered, and one, the little brown myotis (also known as the little brown bat), is federally listed as endangered due to a fatal fungal disease called white nose syndrome.

The Eastern Fraser Valley Young Naturalists Club (EFVYNC), along with volunteer leader Cynthia Berg, are helping to save the small creatures — the only true flying mammal in the world.

Coincidentally, the local initiative to help save our bats comes at the same time as a federal one.

With an announcement Friday from the federal government stating that Environment Canada is giving $330,000 in funding over the next four years to a wildlife health centre in Saskatchewan to study and monitor white nose syndrome, Berg says “we are really on the right track here.”

The funding comes in addition to an initial $50,000 awarded earlier this year to the same centre, the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre at the University of Saskatchewan.

“We take our role in protecting and conserving species in Canada very seriously,” said environment minister Peter Kent in a press release. “By providing for national coordination of Canada’s response to the disease, we will be able to maximize the contributions of our provincial, territorial and private sector partners, as well as ensure consistency in our approach.”

“I think it’s great that we are on top of this and that there will be some funding. It’s absolutely fabulous,” says Berg.

White nose syndrome is quickly spreading to Canada and killing hibernating bats. The disease stays dormant in bats during warmer months, and when the temperature drops while hibernating, the fungus grows. The disease causes infected bats to rouse frequently and early during hibernation and they essentially starve since they cannot find their diet of insects during the cold winter months.

After building seven bat boxes in February — making sure the screws were well-tightened, the sides all lined up, and the edges sealed — the kids with EFVYNC finally got to see their little bat houses installed on Saturday.

The entire process was, undoubtedly, a community effort.

About 25 members of the EFVYNC gathered on a sunny, but cool, Saturday in mid-winter to build the shelters for bats. Biologist and fellow Chilliwack Field Naturalist member Denis Knopp helped organize the project with Berg and spoke with the children about bats. J. David Lush created the prototype and taught the kids how to build the boxes. The tools and facility used to make the boxes were supplied by LSC Pre-Cast Systems, and the materials were funded in part by a Shell Stewardship grant. Finally, the outdoor installation of the boxes this past weekend was completed by Metro Power.

Three of the seven bat boxes now stand tall, each atop a 20-foot decommissioned hydro pole, in a wide open field at the Camp River Wilderness Area located near Camp River and Kitchen roads. Trees border the edges and the grass in the field is calf-high. Hope Slough hugs the west side of the land.

The bat boxes are spread out in a large triangle. Far enough away from the tall trees, they will get full and direct sunlight throughout the entire day.

This is key to their success.

“They have to be in warm regions, and in the open, so the sun can keep the boxes at a certain temperature,” says Berg, who is also a member of the Chilliwack Field Naturalists.

Though fairly small at about three-feet high, and nine inches wide and deep, the bat boxes are important in helping the bats survive and reproduce. The boxes provide a safe, warm place for the mothers to rear their pups.

Surprisingly each box can hold up to 300 nursing female bats and their babies. When their wings are tucked in, and they’re all curled up, the bats are about two-inches tall. They huddle together for warmth and cling to the rough inside edges of the boxes to keep from falling out.

The mothers take turns ‘babysitting’ each others pups inside the bat boxes as others head out throughout the night in search of food. The males and non-nursing females live in a nearby colony.

In addition to these bat boxes, four more will be installed in the near future at the Great Blue Heron Nature Reserve. The Chilliwack Field Naturalists, including Berg and Knopp, will be maintaining and keeping an eye on all of the bat boxes.

Despite what some people may think, bats are not vicious, nor do they all have rabies. And, there are only three vampire bat species in the world which can only be found in South America.

“People should never be afraid of being attacked by bats. They’re very shy creatures. They’re going to avoid you and they’re essentially harmless,” says Berg.

All of the bats here in B.C. are insectivores, they don’t even eat fruit. In fact, bats are a great benefit to our agriculture areas, adds Berg. Bats eat harmful insect that can disturb crops, plus they have a tremendous effect on controlling the mosquito population.

Unfortunately, the number of bats is rapidly declining in our area and it’s a result of pesticide and herbicide use, human interference, removal of trees, loss of habitat, and diseases like the white nose syndrome.

Everyone who helped with the bat box project hopes it will increase the the local bat population, especially the little brown myotis, says Berg. That species eats the most insects found here. Sadly, it’s also the species that’s at the top of the list for being infected with white nose syndrome.

 

The bat facts:

•bats eat 500-800 insects every hour when feeding (mostly at dusk and dawn), and they feed for about six hours a day
•nursing females will eat her body weight in insects every night
•bats live about 15-20 years
•in the winter, most bats here hibernate, though some migrate south
•they hibernate in places with moderate temperatures and a certain level of humidity like vacant mine shafts, caves, old barns and attics
•when hibernating, a bat’s body temperature drops down to 5 degrees Celcius
•bats live near water where they have access to lots of insects and a source of hydration
•there are 20 species of bats in Canada, 16 can be found in B.C., and 10 in the Fraser Valley
•when reproducing, some bats have delayed fertilization where the sperm is stored in the reproductive tract for several months after mating in the fall, then fertilization occurs in the spring
•like humans, bats usually only give birth to one offspring at a time
•the best place to see bats is near a source of light at dawn or dusk where thousands of insects can be found
•there have been only three known deaths in Canada as a result of being bitten by a rabid bat
•bat poop is called ‘guano’ and it makes for a great organic fertilizer

photo@theprogress.com
twitter.com/PhotoJennalism

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