Gaping crusaders help protect Florida's bats

Published October 2 2014

CLEARWATER — Bat people develop superior eyesight. They often develop acute hearing. Sometimes they develop painful cricks in their neck. Bat people are always looking up.

Bat people Cyndi and George Marks like visiting their yard just after sunset to look up, though sometimes their dusk adventures take them out of their Clearwater neighborhood. They'll drive to Coral Gables to see a good bat, or to Key West, or they will look for bats in the Ten Thousand Islands in the Everglades, where ferocious mosquitoes are so plentiful that a billion bats, much less a few dozen rare ones, couldn't eat them all.

Cyndi and George are regulars at Florida's bat theme park, which is in Gainesville on the campus of the University of Florida. Two bat houses, constructed decades ago, are habitat to 400,000 bats. Swarming at dark, the bats can almost eclipse the moon.

When Cyndi and her husband behold winged splendor, they do so with heads up but mouths firmly closed.

They may love bats, but not enough to taste guano.

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"George, bat people are going to be weird."

Imagine you are sitting near Cyndi on a flight to Washington, D.C., in 1989. She and her husband are on their way to attend Bat Conservation International's annual conference. Cyndi, a natural history buff, likes bats but wants to know more. George is curious, too. But they don't know what to expect from bat people.

Would bat people dress head to toe in black? Wear capes? Have yellow eyes? Yes, it sounds stupid now, but they didn't know then.

Well, it turned out that hard-core bat people were just like them, interested in the world's only flying mammal and perhaps its most misunderstood species. Some were scientists; some just appreciated the natural world. Some wanted to help an animal that had long suffered from a public relations problem.

Some people at the conference, indeed, wore black.

Dracula didn't attend.

Cyndi, born in Clearwater in 1954, came home from the conference burning to make Florida a more hospitable place for its 20 bat species. George, born in 1941, always interested in how things work, was fascinated by echolocation, the process by which bats use high-pitched squeaks to find their way around in the dark.

Cyndi has an earnest, caring way; somehow she became the goodwill ambassador for bats in west-central Florida. Phone would ring. "Can you help me with my bat problem?" She removed bats from attics, extracted them from cracks between roof tiles and built little houses for them.

Why? Because she feared homeowners would hire an exterminator with little patience for bats, which sometimes, though rarely, carry rabies. Bat guano, like the droppings of chickens, can contaminate soil and breed bacteria that can sicken humans with histoplasmosis, a respiratory disease.

But bats aren't epidemic. As far as Cyndi and George were concerned, bat killing, accidental or on purpose, was the real epidemic. Bat habitats, often trees, were knocked down for development. Bats were stepped on and killed with baseball bats. Some folks were sure bats would drain their sleeping infants of blood. Cyndi would inform them that Florida has no vampire bats. In the tropics, where bats live, they feed mostly on sleeping animals.

In 1994, Cyndi and George started a group now known as the Florida Bat Conservancy, dedicated to keeping bat populations healthy. Over the decades they have conducted more than 2,000 bat education programs from the Panhandle to Key West. Around Halloween, or after a new vampire movie, the need for bat public relations becomes acute.

"All the myths about bats come up again," George says. "It's almost like we have to start over."

Thanks, Bram Stoker.

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George's family moved to Pinellas County when he was a boy. He was one of those kids who could take things apart and put them back together. Nobody was surprised when he got his engineering degree at the University of Florida and his master's at the University of South Florida and ended up at Florida Power.

But some were surprised he became one of those bat people.

If George had better hearing, he would be deaf. He loves nothing more than listening for bats.

Here comes the dark. Bats fly out of roof tiles at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center in Seminole. They swarm out of culverts, the underside of bridges, caves and tree cavities abandoned by woodpeckers. Thousands of them. And they're screaming.

For the most part, the screams are so high-pitched, humans can't hear them. But bats can. They scream and the sound waves bounce off a tree or a building or, better for the bat, a nice fat moth.

George turns on the machine he calls "the bat detector." It's an Anabat SD2 receiver, which makes audible the screams of nearby bats, those chatterboxes.

If he hooks the SD2 to his computer, software makes those calls visible as sound waves. He can look at the waves, see how close together the bats are and figure out if one is cruising or closing in on a meal. Sometimes he can tell what kind of bat he's monitoring.

George and Cyndi are interested in all Florida bats, but they are studying one kind in particular. It's known as the Florida bonneted bat, but George is one of those people who will throw in the genus and species — Eumops floridanus. With a wingspan of 20 inches, it's Florida's largest bat. It's also the rarest. Last year George, Cyndi and biologists got the bonneted bat placed on the endangered species list.

Nobody knew bonneted bats existed until an expert saw something unusual in Miami in 1936. Over the years one or two were seen by bat people in South Florida. The largest known colony roosts in roof tiles along a Coral Gables golf course, but in recent years other colonies have been discovered roosting in pine forests near Punta Gorda.

George and Cyndi discovered more on appropriately named Dismal Key in the mosquito-infested mangroves of the Ten Thousand Islands. They heard the bats' screams.

Fewer than 400 exist in this world. Nobody knows why there are so few. Is habitat vanishing? Is their prey disappearing? Cyndi has collected guano to see what they're eating. But bonneted bats are fussy eaters and remove easily identifiable insect parts before swallowing. So Cyndi has taken DNA samples of the guano goo.

George has been building bat houses near the small bonneted colonies hoping to provide additional habitat. It seems to be working. In southwest Florida, bonneted bats have taken up residence.

You can read about it in the book the couple wrote. Bats of Florida was published by University Press of Florida in 2006.

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Old-time Floridians loathed mosquitoes even more than bats. Mosquitoes carried malaria, clogged cattle's nostrils and damped tourists' enthusiasm.

In the 20th century, a few dreamers made peace with bats in an effort to rid the land of mosquitoes. The most famous dreamer was Richter Clyde Perky, who owned a fishing camp at Sugarloaf Key north of Key West. In 1929, Perky bought plans for a tower to house bats, which would exterminate the mosquitoes. He invested $10,000, a tidy sum then. Next he bought tons of bat guano from a bat entrepreneur in Texas. The guano, he hoped, would attract local bats to his tower.

The tower stank for many months. The bats never came. The tower is still there.

Another such tower, or at least the foundation, remains in Tampa. It never attracted bats, either. George Marks is helping the historical society reconstruct the tower but in a way that may actually attract bats.

Bats are particular. If you build compartments inside a tower that are too large, the bats may not like it. But bats don't like to be crammed wing to wing, either. It's not an exact science.

But bat towers do work.

In our state, mecca is found at the University of Florida. Years ago bats were nesting under the stands of a variety of stadiums. The stench of guano was awful.

The university's colony of bat lovers, led by biologists and entomologists, built a tower. It proved to be so popular, a second was added. George and Cyndi donated money for educational kiosks, benches and a fence just right for bat people to lean on.

It might be our state's strangest tourist attraction.

"You want to be there about a half-hour before sunset," George tells people. "It's best during fair weather. They may not come out in large numbers if it's raining or too cold."

I arrived 30 minutes before dark. About a dozen people, mostly students but some older folks, had already claimed benches. I took my iPhone and my courage inside the fence and stood in the tall grass a couple dozen feet from the towers.

At 7:35 p.m. I saw my first bat. It was a scout, flapping around frantically as if to check things out before screaming an okay. A few minutes later a few others came out, followed by a dozen, followed by a hundred, followed by many more than a hundred.

Brazilian free-tailed bats, Evening bats, Southeastern myotis bats, looking for moths, beetles and mosquitoes. The 400,000 bats bolting from the towers, I'd read at the kiosk, would eat 3 billion bugs before the night was done. Several thousand pounds.

Bat musk perfumed the air. Bats rocketed past me and over me and everywhere I gaped.

Was it raining? No, perfect weather. Yet I felt drops on my bare arms and neck. I remembered the warning sign on the kiosk: "Beware of Falling Urine and Guano as Bats Fly Overhead."

I shut my mouth.

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