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Going Batty Near Bend 

Banding bats, a nasty poison and other memories from our resident naturalist

If you haven't spent time with bats, you've missed out knowing some very lovely and helpful animals that share this beautiful old Earth with us...our Home away from Home.

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Central Oregon's bats way back in the early '50s when I met up with one of our wonderful epidemiologists (scientists who keep an eye on diseases transmitted to humans through wildlife).

click to enlarge My oldest son, Dean, now a grandfather—whose daughter has made me a Great Grandpa—helping me count a camp of Townsend’s big eared bats near Bend back in the ‘70s. - JIM ANDERSON
  • Jim Anderson
  • My oldest son, Dean, now a grandfather—whose daughter has made me a Great Grandpa—helping me count a camp of Townsend’s big eared bats near Bend back in the ‘70s.

The Bend paper had run an edition with a story on the front page about closing Brothers School because of a rabid coyote dying in the schoolyard. I was reading the story while eating my supper in Polly's Cafe—where I ate my breakfast, lunch and supper—and remarked to the guy seated next to me that a coyote with rabies had caused the closing of Brothers School.

"Oh, that wasn't rabies," he replied, "that was 1080, a poison used to kill coyotes." That remark, and the conversation that followed were what got me deeper into Oregon's wildlife almost 80 years ago.

The guy introduced himself to me, stating he was studying rabies, and would soon be capturing bats from our caves to check for rabies. At that moment any possibility of our forming a friendship vanished.

"No, you're not!" I said, very forcefully. "We don't have enough bats to play that game with!" And that, dear reader, started a discussion that neither of us would ever forget. He argued that it was vital to know the rabies situation in our bats, and I argued that if I found a dead bat he would be the first to know, but he was not going to collect any from our caves for any reason, period!

Not more than a month prior to meeting that epidemiologist in Polly's I had met Bend resident and caver Phil Coyner. He fostered a love of bats in me when he introduced me to the Little brown bats and the amazing Townsend's big-eared bats that sheltered in the lava caves close to Bend.

Coyner and I spent hours watching those bats flashing through air scooping up insects in their webbed tails, and I knew that mosquitos were among the insects they were gobbling up. There was no way anyone was going to capture and kill those remarkable animals, for any reason.

That meeting started me on a search for the poison used to kill coyotes. I found my first poison stations out east of Bend near Pine Mountain when I saw fence posts with red paint on the top. I wondered what the red paint was all about and discovered they turned out to be pieces of poison-soaked horse meat attached to fence posts.

1080, otherwise known to scientists as Sodium fluoroacetate, was developed during WWII, and is a killer that just keeps on killing. There are reports that the Nazis considered using the poison on Jewish prisoners in concentration camps but decided not to because of the danger to the guards.

As I looked around those horrifying killing sites I found dead scrub jays, woodpeckers, mice, ground squirrels, badgers, weasels, porcupines, hawks, owls, coyotes—even song birds, rotting in death.

Turned out it was the '"wool growers," people who raised sheep for the wool, who were putting the pressure on the federal government to kill everything that ate sheep, no matter who/what else got killed in the process.

Research on poison shows 1080 is toxic to all living things, including microbes, plants, insects, fish, birds and humans. In mammals, it causes birth defects, reduced fertility and damage to the reproductive system, including brain, heart and other organs. Really bad stuff and it's now banned in the U.S.

Anyway, back to bats. I wish I could share places I know of that bats use to quench their thirst, but I'm sorry, I cannot.

Back in the '70s bat researchers got the idea of banding bats with a small aluminum band imprinted with a series of numerals to keep them separate from bird banding, so I got into it in a big way. I had been banding birds since 1962, mostly raptors, and felt like I might be able to help to learn more about bats in this way.

I decided to use a little-known cave near Bend to set up nets for capturing bats, but found it far easier to capture bats hibernating in the cave than to trap them.

For 10 years I banded bats in several caves near Bend, but in that one specific cave I banded a Townsend's big-eared male who came back to that cave to spend the winter for 10 years. Each year I'd enter the cave with my big flashlight, and each year—for 10 years straight—I'd find my old pal sleeping in almost the same spot. There was no need to wake him up; I just got as close as I dared to look him over for scars or signs of problems, leave him as he was, and depart.

On the 11th year I found him dead on the floor of his winter bedroom. Someone had shot him. Yes, I cried at the loss and felt so badly about the bat and the poor person who killed him, wondering "why," and still do.

One of the best "gems" I ever got from banding bats came to me 20 years after we quit the project. I received a call from the biologist of the Fort Rock District of the Deschutes National Forest with a question: "Hey Jim, are you still banding bats? The reason I'm asking is I found a banded bat today out in 'such-and-such' cave." He then gave me the number, which turned out to be a Little brown bat I had banded 20 years earlier.

If you would like to place a bat roost on your home or outbuilding, send me a note at jimnaturalist@gmail.com and I'll send you the plans for making one.

Ain't Life grand?!

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