Save the bats!

As a child, whenever I visited my grandmother in Margaretville, I used to stand on her lawn at dusk and watch the bats that lived in her attic come out for their nightly aerial ballet. This was more fun if I was alone; my friends would shriek in horror and flap their hands, fearing that a bat would fly into their hair. Not likely. I never even managed to touch one, they were too quick and agile.

These days, I count myself lucky to see one lone bat at dusk, doing a skittery dance between the apple trees in my grandmother’s mountain meadow like a scrap of burnt paper flung from a fire.

White-nose syndrome, a bat disease whose first North American case was found in a Schoharie County cave in 2007, has been cutting a swath of death through several species of Northeastern bats for just over a decade. The fungus that causes white-nose is harmless to humans, but causes infected bats to wake up early from hibernation, exhausting their fat reserves and starving them to death. Every year, the disease spreads a little farther west and south, destroying entire colonies and leaving decimated populations in its wake.

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I miss the bats of my childhood. Lately, I tend to get cantankerous with people who shudder and tell me they can’t abide bats. I get it — bats are allegedly icky, or something — but given the sorry state of local populations, shrieking about the grossness of Myotis lucifugus is a bit like going “Ewwwww” over the casket at a funeral.

I may have found a kindred spirit in local bat house maker John Virga. John is the proprietor of Bovina Brown Bats, the aptly-named studio where he makes signs, folk art and other miscellaneous woodcrafts. He’s a lanky, ginger-haired man with a gentle disposition and a craftsman’s eye for well-made things. Last week, I brought him up to my family’s land on Margaretville Mountain Road to scope out a good place to set up a bat house.

It didn’t take long for John to find a likely spot. On the northwestern edge of the meadow, just before the tree line, is a secluded spot with plenty of southern exposure. With an open meadow for hunting insects in the moonlight on warm August evenings, and a clear fresh stream just over the hill, it’s a perfect place for mother bats to raise their pups for the summer. I know the bats aren’t likely to return to their former numbers for decades, if at all. But by giving them a good place to start a little maternity colony, I am hoping that in my lifetime, the odd solitary bat we see on occasional summer nights in our meadow will become two, then three, then a dozen.

At roughly $150 a pop, John’s bat houses aren’t cheap. Being a fan of the local barter economy, I lucked into one awhile ago by trading him some advertising on the Watershed Post, the local news site I ran until earlier this year. His beautiful bat house, a flat black angular piece of work that looks like something I. M. Pei might do to an Adirondack chair, is probably the most exotic thing I’ve paid in local ads for — although others include handmade sausage, electrical work, a gym membership, and a gorgeous wood-burning cookstove.

Like generations of Catskills entrepreneurs before us, neither John nor I have profited much from our local business endeavors. This may have something to do with a tendency to value good work over the profit margin. John tells me he’s looking into a source of locust poles to mount his bat houses on instead of using pressure-treated posts, which is probably exactly the sort of thing you shouldn’t do if you want to become a high-powered Catskills real estate developer.

I asked John if he thinks there’s hope for our local bats.

“Last year, the year before that — people are telling me they’re seeing them at their places more,” he said. “I don’t know what it’ll take.”

Scientists don’t know either, although now that white-nose syndrome has been in North America for a decade, they are beginning to understand it a little better.

Some species, like the northern long-eared bat, are in dire peril, and probably headed for extinction. But the little brown bat — once found in tremendous numbers throughout the Northeast, and now reduced by more than 90 percent of its population — is clinging to life with surprising tenacity.

To learn more, I talked to Dr. Winifred Frick, an ecologist at the University of California Santa Cruz whose lab is studying how the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome spreads, and what it does to bat populations.

Most little brown bat populations are still shrinking year after year, Frick said. But in a handful of caves in upstate New York, where the fungus has been present the longest, some little brown bat colonies are holding steady. They’re at a tiny fraction of their former numbers, but the colonies are no longer shrinking.

“It does look like a number of sites have stabilized in terms of population decline. That’s hopeful,” she said.

It’s a slender hope. Bats typically have just one pup a year, so populations are slow to recover. And unlike the tough little brown bat, most of the bat species hit hard by white-nose aren’t showing any signs of resistance.

In a study published by the Royal Society of London early this year, Frick and other researchers took a close look at four little brown bat colonies in upstate New York that were stabilizing, and compared them to more recently-infected colonies in Illinois and Virginia. Bats in the New York colonies appear to have developed some resistance to the fungus; they get infected just as often as bats in other colonies, but they carry less fungus on their bodies, and they die less often.

Ecologists don’t yet know why some bats in long-infected colonies appear to be more resistant to the fungus. It could be a shift in the community of microbes that live naturally on the bats’ skin, or a change in the way the animals’ immune system responds to the fungus, or something else entirely. If scientists can learn more about the mechanism of resistance, Frick said, they might be able to do more to help bat populations recover.

In the meantime, all we can do is wait — and give bats in our backyard the best possible shot at surviving and thriving. Bat houses won’t stop white-nose fungus, but they might help.

“One of the things that I think is most important in conserving these species is helping the bats that survive to reproduce successfully,” Frick said.

Last summer, underneath one of the first bat houses John Virga built back in 2009, he was delighted to find a tiny smattering of guano. It’s not much evidence of a comeback, but it’s a start.

Lissa Harris is the former editor of the Watershed Post. She lives in Margaretville with her wife and daughter. Send her Catskills news tips at lissa.e.harris@gmail.com.

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