Seen a bat flying around campus lately? Yes? Good. Don’t panic – it probably live s in one of the small wooden bat boxes installed on the sides of buildings near the roof or high up in the trees that the College has put up around campus over the past year.
Sarah Cooperman ’17 started researching perceptions of bats in Williamstown for an environmental science senior seminar project and found out about the bat boxes already in place in the process. “I wish we had a more active dialogue about the bat boxes on campus,” she said. “Bats are ecologically important and, nationally, they are vital for our agro-economic health as well.”
Despite their ecological importance, the bat population in New England has been dramatically decreasing over the past 10 years due to white-nose syndrome. “White-nose syndrome is a fungal disease that has absolutely decimated North American bat populations,” Cooperman said. “The fungus grows on the bats during hibernation, which wakes them up and causes them to starve to death as they burn through their previous fat reserves in search for food that isn’t there in winter.” Cooperman explained that some experts believe that the syndrome is more lethal for bats than the Black Death was for humans.
So, what can the College do to help? This is where bat boxes, or “bat houses,” come into play. “Bat boxes provide stable, dependable, bat-specific spaces for summer roosting,” Cooperman said. Typically installed beyond our reach, the boxes are small and tend to be made out of wood, with a single chambered box fitting around 50 bats comfortably. Brown bats (the breed typically found in Williamstown) are so small that they can fit in spaces narrower than one inch wide, so even a few small boxes can have a huge positive impact on the population.
“To protect bats, we’ve been trying to provide some other housing options for bats besides our buildings,” said Dan Levering, assistant director for custodial services and special functions. “In an effort to keep [bats] out of our buildings, we have put up bat houses to give them an easier option to find a place to roost.”
Most people’s reaction to hearing that the College is encouraging bats’ survival would be to ask why. Cooperman and Levering both cited bats’ diet of mosquitoes and agricultural pests as major reasons to keep them around. Additionally, bats are not the harmful, disease carrying vectors that many people assume they are. Bat boxes are one way to encourage and support their repopulation as they fight white-nose syndrome. “In fact,” Cooperman said, “bat houses are a really great way to reduce potentially harmful human-bat interactions – and I mean harmful for both the humans and the bats.”
“Student[s] and faculty are really vocal about not wanting bats in their buildings, so this is an easy, no-brainer solution to that,” Levering said. “We just kind of did it.”
While some students, faculty and town residents have been aware of the decreasing bat numbers and the current efforts to protect the bats, these efforts are not often talked about. “I was really surprised to learn that Williams has a bat box building program in place already,” Cooperman said. So far, there are about 50 bat boxes on campus, and Facilities intends to continue building more. “I think we should put it up [on social media], get people talking and thinking about it and up the awareness,” Levering said.
While the bats are not as dangerous as people make them out to be, they’re not friendly and pet-able. “You don’t want to go and disturb the box during the day when bats are roosting in the summer. That would just be rude to the sleeping bats inside,” Cooperman said. “Additionally, they’re fellow animals that deserve their space and peace.”
As for how students can help, Levering encouraged students to “keep an eye out” for the boxes. “I would love to know if they’re being used,” he said. “One of the ways you can tell if they’re being used is [that] you can see if there’s guano [bat poop] underneath, or on the front of it. So, any sort of feedback where it looks like there’s some activity [in the box], I would love to hear about that.”