By Kate Proctor
What local creatures eat up to 600 insects per hour, act as pollinators, and have seen their populations decimated by “one of the most destructive wildlife diseases in recorded history”? If you guessed “bats” - you’d be right! Maitland Valley Conservation Authority (MVCA) and the Toronto Zoo have recently joined forces to help save and protect some Little Brown Bats at the Wawanosh Valley Conservation Area (WVCA).
Many people who have grown up in this area have fond memories of school trips to WVCA. The old bank barns served as a place to learn about nature – from frogs and snakes to insects and birds. Owl Prowls and winter snowshoeing events also bring families and outdoorsy folks to the conservation area to learn and experience its natural beauty.
Unfortunately, the big bank barns have become structurally unsound in the foundations and footings and are scheduled for demolition and salvage starting in October 2023. While this is sad for humans with fond memories of the barns, it could prove catastrophic for the Little Brown Bats who use the structures during the summer for a maternity roost. The bats leave in the fall and overwinter in caves or underground sites.
The Toronto Zoo’s Native Bat Conservation Program was studying bats in the area, which led to discussions on the roost at WVCA. The Toronto Zoo’s Native Bat Conservation Program is part of a commitment the Zoo has made to help conserve Canada’s native wildlife. This program is also a part of the Zoo’s larger mission: “Connecting people, animals, and conservation science to fight extinction”. Working with the MVCA on this project provided a great way to put the mission into action – providing both a way to help the bats and also help people in the local community learn about this important, endangered species.
The Toronto Zoo was interested in providing advice, research, and support to MVCA so that bat structures could be installed for the bats. MVCA staff have constructed bat structures in April 2023 before the bats returned, close to the existing barns.
Stewart Lockie, MVCA Conservation Areas Coordinator, explains that a couple of different structures have been built. One “mini condo” can hold up to 3,000 bats and was built on 16 foot posts in order to elevate the structure as high as possible. The larger size of this structure provides thermal variation, which would be similar to their former home in the barns.
In addition, eight bat houses were also constructed. These have a four-chamber design and can hold approximately 200 bats each. These structures are spread throughout the property and will be monitored for temperature and use. Some have been placed in the shade and some in more sunny locations to determine which the bats prefer. Once the barns have been removed, Toronto Zoo staff will continue to monitor the structures to determine how effective they have been at providing an alternate home for the bats over the summer.
Little Brown Bats were once one of the most common bats in this area, and are widespread across Canada. Our local populations have declined more than 90 per cent, largely due to a disease that was first observed in New York State in 2006. White Nose Syndrome, which is a fungal disease, damages the wing and skin tissues. It interrupts bats’ hibernation, when they are most vulnerable. They use up precious fat reserves and emerge from hibernation too early, before their food is available. This causes many of the bats to die due to freezing and starvation.
“White Nose Syndrome mortality rates in caves can approach 100 per cent, making it one of North America’s most destructive wildlife diseases in the past century,” (https://www.torontozoo.com/!/pdfs/Bats-ConservationGuide.pdf). “It is estimated that loss of bats due to white-nose syndrome in North America could lead to agricultural losses estimated at more than $3.7 billion/year,” states a website called Batwatch.
While Little Brown Bats naturally roost in tree cavities, they have adapted to live with humans and can occupy our structures as well. For those of us who live in old farm houses, summer evenings would not be the same without the swooping of these tiny creatures as they eat their weight in insects in a night. Newer construction does not offer the same opportunities for bats to enter, reducing their habitat options. Bats overwinter in caves or underground, often within a few hundred kilometers of their summer homes.
Bats are highly vulnerable to challenges because they breed slowly, with many species producing only one offspring per year. They can live for multiple decades, but their populations take a long time to recover from losses. The Little Brown Bat has been known to live up to 39 years, but faces risk of extinction due to the decimation caused by White Nose Syndrome; habitat loss also takes its toll.
You can learn more about bats and contribute to a better understanding about them at the website – Neighbourhood Batwatch at https://batwatch.ca. General information about bats and building bat houses can be found on the Toronto Zoo website.
Humans have also been considered with the demolition of the WVCA barns, however the Toronto Zoo is not a part of this project. An accessible picnic shelter will be constructed for community use once the barns have been removed. The Maitland Conservation Foundation is currently fund raising for this initiative with more details available on the MVCA website. ◊