Eating 600 mosquitoes per hour and constituting one-fourth of all mammal species on earth, bats are impressive creatures that are difficult to ignore.
Although they oftentimes trigger thoughts of spooky Halloween tales or blood-sucking vampires, bats don’t deserve such a misunderstood, phobia-ridden reputation.
That was the message at Kids Day at the Park held at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park on Sunday, where children learned with their parents that bats aren’t creatures to be feared.
Sunday’s event was part of the fifth annual “Bats on Parade,” a program that runs through the summer with activities at Columbia Public Library and Rock Bridge.
“Bats on Parade” gives children of all ages the opportunity to expand their knowledge of bats and their environment and to explore the outdoors through cave tours, interactive games and artistic activities.
“Bats are very important in our ecosystem,” said Meredith Donaldson, director of Friends of Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, which co-sponsors the program. “They’re important to us. They’re important to the other animals in the cave.”
Given that bats play an integral role in their environment, it’s important to debunk misleading myths, Donaldson said. Examples of such myths include: bats will fly into your hair — which echolocation prevents; their incidence of rabies is high — it is actually exceedingly low; and bats are blind — not so, but they do have trouble seeing in the dark.
“We want to get kids out exploring nature, because you care about what you value, and we want kids to have an experience like this that they’ll remember,” Donaldson said.
Games, like the one Maria Dorsey, a state park employee, played with her group, are one way that “Bats on Parade” helps kids associate fun with nature and learning.
With pairs of children blindfolded, one being a “bat” and the other an “insect,” the kids could see how bats use echolocation as a means to see better in the dark.
“I’ll be the bat,” said Annamarie Miller, age 6. “He’ll be the little insect,” she said, pointing to her younger brother, Nathaniel, age 3.
Using noise shakers, the “bat” rattles its shaker first and the “insect” responds. The “bat” then tries to catch the “insect” by following the sound.
Kids also had the opportunity to hike through Connor’s Cave and to decorate paper bats to be hung throughout the month of July in Columbia Public Library.
There are six species of bats, two of which are endangered, that frequent the caves and open areas in Rock Bridge. The big brown bat, the little brown bat, Eastern Pipistrelle (commonly called Pips) and the northern long-eared bat are all common in the Missouri area. Indiana bats, which hibernate in Devil’s Icebox Cave each winter, and gray bats, which use the cave as a nursery colony in the summer, are both endangered and a privilege to have in the park, Donaldson said.
“The fact that we have two endangered bats in our cave says that our cave is providing them a good habitat,” Donaldson said. “They’re, in a way, a signal. Bats are an indicator of a healthy cave.”
Roughly 13,000 gray bats and 500 Indiana bats return to Devil’s Icebox cave each year.
To ensure the continued health of bats and their habitats, “Bats on Parade” works to impress upon children the respect and care that bats and the environment require and deserve.
“Hopefully, the child gets connected to a larger picture of how our ecosystems are complex and fascinating and something worth taking care of,” Donaldson said.
Of all the information that the kids take away from the event, this is considered the most important lesson learned.
“You don’t protect what you don’t understand,” said Carolyn Doyle, a master naturalist and park aid. “And you don’t understand something unless you get to know it. We’ve got to instill in our kids the love of nature that we have and pass it on this way. I think that’s extremely valuable.”