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Bats about bats.

Where to see the West's most misunderstood mammal

FOLK TALES WOULD have us believe that bats are dirty and aggressive creatures that like nothing better than to attack a tall hairdo or suck the blood of a sleeping infant. Early Hollywood depictions of bats as the alter egos of murderous vampires gave celluloid credibility to such views. In fact, recent studies have shown bats to be an industrious lot, often playing a key role in agriculture by helping pollinate plants and by consuming insects that damage crops.

But despite their brightening image, bats are still darkly fascinating to watch, which is easy in the West since bats are so prominent in our skies (Texas alone boasts 32 species of bat). And because these mammals are very active during the summer months and through October (most bats migrate or hibernate in the winter), now is the best time to go bat viewing.

BLIND AS A BAT, AND OTHER MYTHS

Despite the expression, bats see rather well, but in the dark they navigate and communicate by using high-frequency sounds. Most of their calls--ticks, squeaks, buzzes--are beyond the range of human hearing.

Sinister myths about their eating habits notwithstanding, most Western bats feed primarily on insects. To get an idea how helpful this diet can be, consider that the colony of 1.5 million bats under the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas, consumes up to 30,000 pounds of insects each night, including destructive crop pests and annoying mosquitoes.

At dusk throughout the summer, bat colonies emerge en masse from their roosts (frequently caves) in search of food. During a single night's flight, a Mexican free-tailed bat may fly to an altitude of 10,000 feet to satisfy its hunger. Despite the animal's small size (the West's largest bat species has a wingspan of just 12 inches), some swarms in Texas and New Mexico are dense enough to show up on radar. Still, experts warn that a few bat species are or may become endangered as their habitats diminish.

WEST'S BEST BAT VIEWING

The following spots are worth a detour if you're bats about bats. All offer guided programs and are open year-round unless otherwise noted.

Arizona. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, 12 miles west of Tucson, has an outstanding Life Underground exhibit, with live pallid (pale yellow to cream-colored) bats hanging from crevices in a mock desert canyon wall. On Saturdays from July 31 through August 21, you can attend weekly Nightstalkers walks, during which you can listen to bat calls with bat detectors, and see wild bats that have been caught by trained guides. Walks cost $12 for museum members, $20 for nonmembers. Museum membership costs $30 per person, $40 for a family. For information, call (602) 883-2702.

New Mexico. The Carlsbad Caverns National Park, 27 miles southwest of Carlsbad, is home to a colony of some 1 million Mexican free-tailed bats, which roost there from April through October. You can view their dramatic nightly flight from an amphitheater at the cave mouth. A popular, free ranger talk begins at dusk (arrive early for a good seat), and the exodus from the cave may last an hour. For more information, call (505) 785-2232.

Texas. The Eckert James River Bat Cave near Mason, which is northwest of San Antonio, has the largest viewable colony in the West--as many as 6 million Mexican free-tailed bats. Their flight out of the cave lasts as long as 2 1/2 hours. The cave is open Thursdays through Sundays during the spring and summer. May through July are the peak months. For directions and information, call The Nature Conservancy of Texas at (512) 224-8774.

The Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin boasts the largest urban colony of bats. Why is this site so bat-friendly? The Colorado River attracts insects for the bats to dine on, and niches in the bridge's expansion joints make perfect roosts. The bats stay April through October.

We should note that while experts can't say if bats are more prone to carry rabies than other wild mammals, the disease can be transmitted from bats to humans. A bat on the ground may be sick, so never pick up or handle a bat.

To learn more, read America's Neighborhood Bats (University of Texas Press, Austin, 1990; $9.95) by Merlin D. Tuttle. If you are really serious, you can join a group called Bat Conservation International ($30 yearly); for membership information, call (512) 327-9721.
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Title Annotation:bat viewing
Author:Finnegan, Lora J.
Publication:Sunset
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Words:740
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