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Going Batty To Learn Truth about Bats?

Potomac Pathways

<bt>Why wait to see “Batman Begins” when there are local places to observe 10 real-life bat species are native to the Washington, D.C. area? Bats fly without the aid of CGI animation or special effects, and they wage nightly war on evil — or at least mosquitoes and pest bugs that terrorize people and garden plants.

Leslie Sturges, a naturalist at Locust Grove Nature Center, is especially fond of bats. She directs the regional chapter of Bat World, a nonprofit bat rescue sanctuary and advocate for conservation of bats.

She also has another mission concerning bats — educating people to distinguish bat fact from bat fiction. “I try to put some old, moldy myths about bats to rest,” Sturges said.

For starters, they don’t get caught in peoples’ hair. It’s relatively normal for one to go out in the day. And bats in latitudes above the subtropical regions are all insect-eaters — they’re not out for mammal blood, least of all humans’ blood.

“They eat tons of insects,” said Sturges. A colony of 50 big brown bats eats more than a ton insects each season, and other bugs in their diet are plant pests that eat garden plants. Because of their dietary and roosting needs, bats are signs of a healthy local ecosystem.

They’re also cool to watch. They’re the only mammal capable of sustained flight, and they must flap constantly. As bats use echolocation to find insects, they’ll zig and zag through the evening sky.

The big brown is the most common of local bats, while the Indiana bat is on the federal endangered species list.

Most local species must roost within a quarter-mile of a water source, and ponds — especially community ponds — are great places to see bats in the evening. So are athletic fields or clearings. “They’re like us — they’d just as soon go down a clear trail,” Sturges said.

NONE OF THIS MEANS that bats are cuddly show animals.

“We don’t want people to love them so much that they start picking them up and bringing them home,” Sturges said. “We want to remember that this is a wild animal here.”

Like any mammal with pointy teeth, they are a rabies vector species — they can carry the disease. A bat can only transmit rabies by a bite — on the occasions when they get into a human home or roost in somebody’s eaves, their presence won’t transmit rabies.

“No one gets to pet bats — that’s just the way it is,” Sturges said. “Bats make very, very poor exhibit animals. … To be on exhibit is very stressful for them.”

Bats are best seen in their native environment. With the right equipment, they can be heard there, too.

In Locust Grove’s bat watch, Sturges leads groups outside with a “bat detector,” audio equipment with a transducer that enables humans to hear the bats’ calls in real-time.

“If you get a bunch of them calling, it sounds like popcorn popping,” Sturges said. “It sounds like a raspberry right before they get an insect.”

Family Bats

Bring the family to learn about bats of the world, then venture outdoors to watch bats fly, and eavesdrop on their ultrasonic hunting calls with bat detectors. Admission is $1.50/person at Locust Grove Nature center, Cabin John Regional Park, 7777 Democracy Blvd., Bethesda on Saturday, May 28, 7-8:30 p.m.

Bat Camp

Teens and adults (ages 14 and up) are invited to join an in-depth study of bats at Locust Grove Nature Center, Aug. 23-26, 7-9 p.m. E-mail Leslie Sturges at lsturges@verizon.net for more information

Bats Online

Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources has a Web site with information on bat houses, bats and diseases, and 10 bat species native to Maryland, including audio clips of bat calls. Visit www.dnr.state.md.us/wildlife/bats/nhpbatfield.asp.

Leslie Sturges, a naturalist at Locust Grove, is director of Bat World NOVA, a bat rescue sanctuary and nonprofit dedicated to conservation and protection of bats, and educating children in the region about them. Visit www.batworld.org/batworld_centers/nova.html.

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