(Posted Oct. 9, 2020)
Dedra Cordle, Staff Writer
One summer night, when Wayne Roberts was a boy, he looked across the darkening skies and experienced a vague feeling of unease.
He saw what he thought were birds exhibiting atypical flight behaviors and making peculiar sounds.
Upon learning they were not birds but bats, he did what any person with a healthy dose of curiosity would do: he cracked open a book, pored over information and scanned photographs. In so doing, he determined his unease was justified.
“They were just the strangest creatures to me,” he explained. “They were unlike anything else I had ever seen.”
As Roberts grew up, he came across literature and programming with bats as the centerpiece. In these formats, he was exposed to bats that transform into ancient beings who need human blood to survive; bats that become the inspiration for a grief-stricken heir to become a masked vigilante; and bats that cause once friendly animals to turn rabid and stalk humans trapped inside a sweltering car.
With their fictionalized versions firmly planted in his mind, Roberts started to seek out the less sensational aspects of these polarizing winged mammals and discovered some truly interesting things.
“I learned that we absolutely need them around to maintain a healthy ecosystem, so I have never wished for their demise,” he said with a laugh. “However, just because I knew about their importance to our world did not mean I wanted to encounter them while walking outside that often.”
Fast forward to this year, and the proverbial bat signal has been activated in Roberts’s brain.
“I am helping to oversee a conservation project that will hopefully establish bat colonies in the area,” he said. “It’s a bit of a turn that I never saw coming.”
The foundation for bat conservation was laid eight years ago via an Eagle Scout project from members of Boy Scout Troop 104. With permission from the parks district and with the assistance of the Friends of Madison County Parks and Trails (FMCPT), the scouts constructed and placed nine bat houses along the Prairie Grass Trail corridor, from Midway Street westward, in the hopes that bats would thrive in London.
As executive director of FMCPT, Roberts was on hand as they attached the bat homes to existing telegraph poles, and he witnessed their passion for the project.
“They were so excited and so proud to be creating potential homes for bats,” he said. “Despite a few long-held misgivings on the species, I wanted to see their endeavor be a real success.”
Over the years, interest waned regarding occupancy of the homes. That outlook recently changed, however, thanks to a casual request from a friend of Roberts.
Growing up in rural northeastern Ohio, Rick Shears has always had an avid interest in animals, particularly those that have a bad rap.
“Snakes, spiders and bats were my always my favorites,” he said.
Shears said enjoyed learning about the variety of species and sharing that information with anyone who would listen.
“I wanted to try to get people to love them as much as I did,” he explained.
As a student of environmental studies with a focus on bat biology, Shears has made it his personal mission to advocate for bats. They face a number of threats stemming from habitat loss and a disease known as white-nose syndrome that has killed millions of bats throughout North America.
Among his advocacy endeavors is tracking the populations throughout the region, and that is how he came to London late last year. While camping at the Gwynne Conservation Area out at the Farm Science Review grounds one night, he remembered there were bat houses at the Prairie Grass trailhead and along the trail corridor and went to check on their viability. What he saw, however, made him realize there was little to attract the mammals.
“One of the first things I noticed was the overgrowth of brush,” Shears said. “Some of these houses were buried in leaves and branches which is not appealing to bats because sunlight cannot get through to warm up the homes.”
He noticed other undesirables that would keep bats from taking up residence, such as where on the poles the homes were attached.
“When building a bat house, it is important to place it at least 15 feet above the ground or higher,” he said. “This makes it harder for predators to get to them and harder for humans to get a look inside.”
Knowing bats are in the area, Shears proposed a bat house refurbishing and replacement project and found a willing participant in Roberts.
“Talking with someone who has a great passion for something can change your perspective on things,” Roberts said. “In talking to Rick about this, I started learning more about bats and becoming more and more fascinated with them.”
Over the past several weeks, Roberts, Shears, Alan Knowles and Jim Posey developed an action plan. The first three weeks of October would be spent clearing brush and installing new poles, one at the trailhead behind the Madison County Senior Center on West High Street and another further down the trail to the west and just 10 feet off the asphalt.
Then, using bat-approved specifics, they would spend a week rebuilding or refurbishing the bat homes, making the chambers smaller and the exteriors rougher to make for a better landing pad for the bats to climb inside. To coincide with Bat Week, an internationally recognized week of education and advocacy, more work will be done on the houses, and ideally they will be erected on Oct. 26-27.
Volunteers are needed for the last phase. A small group from Green Columbus has already pledged their time. Anyone who lives in the area and is interested in lending a hand can contact Roberts via FMCPT’s social media pages for more information.
Roberts said some people might wonder if it is a good idea to potentially bring hundreds of bats to the area, especially along a trail that attracts hundreds of visitors each year. To this inquiry, Roberts enthusiastically says “yes.”
“They are so important to keeping our insect population at bay,” he said, referring to the vast amounts of crop killing bugs and mosquitoes they consume each night. “If we didn’t have them eating up these bugs each night, we would soon be overrun.”
When asked that same question, Shears concurred.
“Bats have always had a bad reputation,” he said, “but they are so beneficial for our survival.”
He also said not to worry when it appears they are swooping down by your head.
“They are not looking to nest in your hair,” he said. “What they’re really doing is looking for the bugs that are floating all around you.”
So, in essence, they’re protecting us from harm?
“Well, they’re looking to eat, first and foremost, but they are protecting you from potential bites from disease-carrying bugs,” he said. “So, I guess, in a way, they are protecting you, so it is important that we return the favor and protect them, too.”
Roberts said that is reasoning he can get behind.
“I never thought I would say this, but it is my hope that in the future we see hundreds of bats flying through the skies in Madison County and making this their home in the warmer months.”