FOR BURR BETTS, BATS ARE IN HIS BLOOD
By Alice Perry Linker
Observer Staff Writer
The batman of Union County doesnt wear a cape or live in a cave. In fact, many of his subjects dont live in caves, either. They live in the attic of a bunkhouse on a Meacham ranch.
Burr Betts, biology professor and interim provost at Eastern Oregon University, says bats arent the vicious disease carriers of mythology, but they are mysterious.
We dont know where they go in the winter, he said about the bunkhouse colony of Townsends big-eared bats. They cant stay in the attic; its too cold. They may find an old mine, a cave or a warm attic but not too hot to hibernate.
Following the little critters is nearly impossible. Unlike larger mammals that can wear an effective radio collar, the bats are so small that its impossible to follow them for a long distance by radio. Their little bodies wont support the weight of a long-lived battery.
Betts said that some radio tracking is done, but only for short periods of time, not enough to trace the animals trip from summer colonies to winter hibernation.
About 100 Townsends bats, a sensitive species in Oregon, live in the bunkhouse attic, where they have created a maternity colony. There, from early July until late August, mothers give birth and raise their children. By the end of August, they are leaving the roost, looking for a place to spend the winter.
The Townsends live at one end of the bunkhouse attic, and at the other end lives a colony of nearly 1,000 little brown bats, far more common in the Northwest.
Betts has recorded several hundred hours of mother-child behavior among the Townsends at Meacham for his research into maternal behavior. Now comes the tedious part: Watching the videos and recording his observations. Betts said hell need to watch one frame at a time, go back and watch again, to make detailed observations.
Through the research, Betts hopes to learn as much as possible about the quality of bat nurturing.
Ill study the interaction between moms and babies; how much time and energy the moms invest in caring for the babies, he said.
Although male bats leave the maternity colony after that first summer, the young females probably return with their mothers.
Betts bat research extends beyond the bunkhouse into the experimental forest at Starkey, where hes in the early stages of a 10-year study analyzing the effects on bats of removing dead and downed trees, logs and shrubs. Bats, like many bird species, live in hollow snags.
We dont know if any removal methods will have an effect on bats, he said.
Betts has celebrated his affinity for bats by filling his office with a variety of bat toys, including flying bats, resting bats and bat caricatures. He became interested in the little night-living mammals almost by accident when he was doing some work for the Forest Service one summer. A few weeks with the bats and hed found a true love.
I discovered I really like them and they fit my schedule, he said.
As a biology professor at a small university, Betts has limited time for research during the school year; summers are when he can devote time and energy to his own studies.
They give birth in late June or early July, he said. And Im kind of a night person; they fit my lifestyle.
Theyre very beneficial animals. The major myth is that bats carry rabies, but the data show that a person is much more likely to get rabies from domestic cats.
All the bats of Northeast Oregon eat insects.
Many seem to focus on beetles and moths among the major forest pests, Betts said. Potentially, theyre very beneficial. They do at night what birds do in the daytime.
Occasionally Betts has lowered his sights to other types of wildlife, surveying the water-dwelling caddis fly and studying the Washington ground squirrel, now a listed species in Oregon.
Betts began his study of ground squirrels in the late 1980s, when they seemed in pretty good shape. Ten years later, many of the colonies located by Betts had disappeared.
The biologist attributes the loss to the fragmentation of the squirrels habitat.
Big areas of their range were chopped up when they were converted to irrigated crop land, he said.
The best Oregon habitat for Washington ground squirrels is the military bombing range near Boardman, he said.
With the completion of the squirrel survey, Betts returned to his bat studies and his efforts to change the flying animals image. Hes done bat public relations with his summer evening programs at Spring Creek, and he has changed a few minds.
Parents who were afraid of bats bring their children to see the presentation and they lose their fear, he said.