Bat biologist Rob Mies sauntered around the Bud Werner Memorial Library with a Big Brown Bat named Radar peeking from his leather-gloved palm. Contrary to his species name, Radar weighs the equivalent of four nickels. With tiny eyes and large ears, shy Radar snoozed and echolocated his admirers. He was a mealworm-eating micro bat on parade for 300 inquisitive sets of eyes – a species found around the Yampa Valley, but doubtfully one anyone had ever seen so close.
Next came Kamila, a tropical Malayan flying fox that is one of the largest bat species in the world. She eats fruit and wouldn’t naturally be found within 8,000 miles of Steamboat Springs. Her translucent wings garnered electric aahs as she unveiled their nearly five-foot span. “They look more fragile than they actually are,” Mies explained. Wrapped around Kamila’s woolen body, they appeared clingy, like cellophane stretched over four long fingers and a small thumb. “The wings feel like your eyelid. It’s smooth, strong skin,” he said.
This was a bat encounter few will forget – and an opportunity to raise appreciation for bats that lurk in Steamboat’s backyards. Edging from late fall into winter, the Yampa Valley’s own migrating bats have departed for the season. Mies said this is prime time to build bat houses to prepare for their return next spring.
“If you build it they will come,” says local bat expert Apple Snider. “Don’t despair if they don’t move in right away.”
With this hope in mind, the Yampa Valley Land Trust is working with wildlife biologists at the conserved 250-acre Rehder Ranch located on Harrison Creek near Lake Catamount. They aim to create new homes for about 1,000 little brown bats currently residing in the ranch’s historic structures. Ultimately, bat houses (or perhaps a bat condo) are expected to lure the bats from the rafters.
Steamboat’s two most common bats are little brown bats and long-legged bats. It’s not uncommon during summer to be sitting on your deck at twilight and watch them swooping in search of insects. Snider estimates nine different species are likely to ply local skies, rounding out the list with the Western small-footed bat, long-eared bat, fringed bat, hoary bat, silver-haired bat, big brown bat and Townsend’s big-eared bat. Traveling west towards Dinosaur National Monument with its warmer temperatures, canyons and towering rock faces, the species count increases.
Before becoming a wildlife biologist for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, Snider worked with Mies. The founder of the Organization of Bat Conservation is a charismatic conservationist who has appeared with his rescue bats on television alongside everyone from Conan O’Brien to Martha Stewart. (Mies says O’Brien was wary. Stewart wanted to snuggle them – a definite no-no.) In Steamboat this fall, Mies reigned over the library like a pied piper, weaving among mesmerized bat fans with seemingly infinite knowledge and four magnificent examples of the planet’s only flying mammals.
The bat fossil record is 54 million years old, dating to a specimen found in Wyoming’s Green River Formation. While bats were initially classified as “birds with fur,” science has since clarified things. These mammals have one or two pups per year, nurse them, then teach them to fly. Bats live in colonies where they can hide during the day, sometimes living to 30 years old.
While there are bats that eat fish, frogs, nectar and blood among the more than 1,200 globally known species, all of Colorado’s bats eat insects. That diet largely includes beetles, moths and mosquitoes, hence 24-36 sharp teeth to chew through hard insect shells. They even eat mountain pine beetles that have devastated Western forests if the beetles happen to take their limited flights at the right time of day.
The deadly white nose syndrome has dominated bat news since it was first discovered in New York in 2006 and has since spread to 19 states, but the fungus has yet to appear in Colorado. Oklahoma is the closest sighting so far. It grows in cold caves and mines and affects hibernating bats by leaving an irritating white powder on their noses that wakes them up repeatedly, sending them out into the cold winter in search of food during a season when insects aren’t available. Ultimately, the repeated awakening burns up stored fat and kills the bats – a death toll now estimated at more than 6 million.
Since Steamboat doesn’t have giant caves or many abandoned mines for colonies to roost, our bats tend to be more dispersed – perhaps an advantage should the fungus appear in Colorado. Here, they live in dead tree snags around the forest, rock pockets, behind loose bark and in boulder field crevices and cliff cracks. They tuck themselves away from predators like hawks, owls, eagles, snakes, raccoons and house cats – making attics and barns appealing habitat too.
But perhaps most obvious in our daily lives, a single bat eats anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 insects per night. A bat house built today might just preserve next summer’s fragile garden: As many as 100 bats can roost inside a 1’x2’ house, devouring up to a half million insects each night.