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Artificial bat houses established at McCoy

      A dynamic duo descended at Fort McCoy Aug. 22 to spread the word about their passion for bats and what bats can do for the installation and its ecological system.

      Richard West, a bat researcher, helped construct three artificial bat house sites at Fort McCoy under the guidance of Mike Bakke, better known as the Wisconsin bat specialist.  The housing sites are approximately 15 feet off the ground and have more than 10 structures each to house bats.

Photo  of a group of interested people observes the bat house site near the Sparta-Fort McCoy Airport on South Post.
A group of interested people observes the bat house site near the Sparta-Fort McCoy Airport on South Post. (Photo by Rob Schuette)

      At one of the sites near the Sparta-Fort McCoy Airport, the two talked about the project, which began in February and already is showing good results.

      Bat feces or guano,  found at the site, indicated that little brown bats, the most common species of bats in the area, were using the structures.

      "Many times,  people don't get bats in the houses right away," Bakke said. "These bats are migratory and will fly down the Mississippi when colder weather arrives. We hope they'll return next year, bring their friends and begin to breed." 

      Eventually, each of the three sites could house as many as 10,000 bats, he said. The bat houses have differing habitat arrangements where the nocturnal bats can spend the daylight hours in hiding before beginning their search for food during the nighttime hours.

      West began the project as a member of the Wisconsin Conservation Corps (WCC) work crew at Fort McCoy.  WCC crewmembers get four hours a week to pursue educational projects, and West made bats his priority.

      "I went out at nights for about a month, using a spotlight to look for bats," West said. "This location is good, because it's an open area, the wetlands provide a lot of insects and there's not a lot of disturbance. Bats tend to be very private mammals."

      Bakke, who has been working with bats for more than 20 years, said bats are very misunderstood.

      First, one of the more popular misconceptions is that bats have a high incidence of rabies, while the fact is that the occurrence of rabies in bats is less than one-half of 1 percent.  Second, bats are not physically a threat to people and don't look to attack them.

      "Bats don't want to interact with people," West said. "Like any wild animal if you disturb them or try to touch them, they will defend themselves and may bite. Bats' biggest enemy is humans, who destroy their habitats and kill the bats - far more than any of the bats' natural predators do."

      Bats are ravenous eaters and normally range in weight from three grams to 35 grams. The 35 grams is equal to just one and one-quarter ounces. Yet, a single, little brown bat can eat up to 600 mosquitoes in an hour. A nursing little brown bat mother can eat more than 4,500 insects (more than her body weight) in one night.

Photo of Richard West, a bat researcher, checks a bat house site at Fort McCoy to see if it's inhabited.
Richard West, a bat researcher, checks a bat house site at Fort McCoy to see if it's inhabited. (Photo by Rob Schuette)

      Kim Mello, installation wildlife biologist, said bats are native species and are part of the rich biodiversity found on Fort McCoy.  They also play an important ecological role in helping control insect populations. Using bats to control insects, such as mosquitoes, is much more environmentally friendly than using pesticides, West added.

      Bakke said with the recent news about mosquito-borne illnesses, such as the West Nile Virus and La Crosse encephalitis, that bats may help reduce the risk.

      "We don't know yet, but the bats eat insects, and we hope they would eat mosquitoes that are capable of carrying diseases," Bakke said. 

      Bakke said he hopes studies can be done at Fort McCoy to indicate what the bats are eating. Two ways to check this are by examining feces and by having the bats regurgitate their meals.

      Research and documenting information is very important because it helps people understand how bats live, Bakke said.

      One important source of information is the Bat Conservation International North American Bat House Research Project, which can be found at the Web site www.batcon.org.

      The project tracks data including the color, shape, depth and size structures that attract bats. Bakke said the color black works well in Wisconsin.  At Fort McCoy, structure shape also appears to be playing a role as the rocket-like structures are more inhabited than the other flatter-shaped structures, he said.

      One of the things he did for the Fort McCoy structure was to bring part of a Minnesota structure that previously attracted bats. Bakke said the structure was soaked in bat feces and urine.

      West and Bakke said they will provide informational sessions to area students and groups about the project, believed to be the largest of its kind in Wisconsin.

      Bakke added they also will seek support from students and other educational personnel for the project.

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