Today's Story
With Halloween just around the corner, it's very likely that a lot of bats will be in view as part of holiday decorations. But ... most of Pennsylvania's real bats will actually be hibernating by October 31st. During the summer, however, more than twenty-thousand of them take up residence in the attic of an abandoned 19th-century church near Altoona. WHYY's Brad Linder has more.

Flight of the Bat
An Old Church Offers a Haven for an Endangered Bat.
October 11, 2002

By Dan Simon

Going to church looks like it might be a lifesaver for an endangered species.
The Indiana Bat, on the endangered species list since 1967, has always been picky about where it raises its young. The discovery a few years ago that a maternal colony of the bats was making its home in an old church in Canoe Creek State Park in Altoona, Penn., was big news in bat biologist circles.

This old church across the road from Canoe Creek State Park near Altoona, Penn., is home to more than 23,000 bats. ©GreenWorks photo by Dan Simon

The discovery is significant for several reasons. First, it means that manmade bat habitat's may help replace some of the natural locations the bats previously relied upon for pup rearing. The species has suffered as its preferred forest canopy has been lost to development in its primary range in the central part of the country. It's also turned the old church into a research facility where biologists have ready access to the little critter.

The small bat is very similar to the much more common Little Brown Bat. It's seen its numbers decline in Pennsylvania from thousands of the little creatures, to fewer than a thousand. There are perhaps a few hundred Indiana bats mingled amongst the more than 25,000 Little Brown Bats that make up the entire Canoe Creek Bat colony.

An Indiana Bat. ©GreenWorks photo by Dan Simon

Because the church is so accessible, biologists such as Cal Butchkoski of the Pennsylvania Game Commission have been able to learn more about the bat's habits and preferences. This makes it more likely they can get an accurate picture of its numbers and also how to build better bat boxes to attract them.

"The church has a black roof oriented toward the southeast," Butchkoski said. "It actually has two layers of roof, an old shake shingle and over the top it, a layer of black tin and in between those two layers is a three-quarter to one-inch crevice for them to get into when it's real cold out and the sun is out. That heats up just nice and easily gets up to 100 degrees on a 50 degree day."

A bat box attached to the side of the old church offers additional roosting space for the bat colony. ©GreenWorks photo by Dan Simon

Bats, particularly pregnant ones, need that extra warmth. The small mammals can only store small reserves of fat necessary to sustain life in cooler temperatures. The more calories they have to expend to stay warm, the less that are available for fetal development. The pregnant bats may have to slow their metabolism under such conditions, leading to underdeveloped pups.

The church attic, which seems to have been hosting a bat colony since the 1930s, provides the perfect place for the bats who can move higher or lower in the attic to find the ideal temperature, and, surprise the biologists.

"It turns out they prefer temperatures around 94 or 95 degrees," Butchkoski said. "So when it starts getting too warm, they start moving down. This makes it easier for us to do an accurate count of the Indiana bats."

The Little Brown Bats sharing the roost don't migrate downward at the same temperature as the Indiana Bats, so instead of trying to pick out a few hundred needles amongst a 23,000-bat haystack, biologists can just wait until temperatures are right to do their census or find specimens for banding or examination.

Today's Story
Hear Brad's Radio Report.

Additional Story
Canoe Creek Park Manager Terry Wentz on bats.

Additional Soundbite 1
Terry Wentz on increasing bat populations.

Additional Soundbite 2
Cal Butchkoski on the importance of the Indiana Bat.

Read Brad's radio story.

Additional Story Transcript
Canoe Creek Park Manager Terry Wentz on bats.

Location, location, location
Why bats like Canoe Creek State Park.

Hibernation hazards
Winter is a difficult time for bats, particularly if they're disturbed.

Bat chasing 101
Radio tracking a flying bat isn't always easy.

Bats and Skeeters
Environmental Reporter story on the role bats play in mosquito control.

Season of the Bat
Video about the Canoe Creek Bat Colony.

Pennsylvania Game Commission
Commission's web page on bats in Pennsylvania.

Canoe Creek State Park
Department of Conservation and Natural Resources web page for the state park.

Explore Biodiversity at Canoe Creek State Park
State web page with information on the bat colony.

Bats up close
Web site with information on Pennsylvania bat species.

Bat Conservation International
Web site of this conservation organization.

Watershed Radio
Radio program on the Canoe Creek Bat Colony

The Environmental Reporter is a partnership of and WHYY Radio, which makes all reports available to public radio stations throughout Pennsylvania.