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Outside » Natural World

Brent's "Little Buddy": The story of one of Central Oregon's bats

I don't hear from my pal, woodcarver, caver and photographer Brent McGregor as much as I'd like to, but when I do, he knocks my

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I don't hear from my pal, woodcarver, caver and photographer Brent McGregor as much as I'd like to, but when I do, he knocks my socks off. The photo above is an example, and the note with it also hit my funny bone: "My little buddy was in the mood for more pictures today. I'm teaching him to stand up rather than (hanging) upside down, and I think he likes it: notice the smile on his face!:))"

As I sat there laughing at what appeared when Brent turned the bat photo upside down, the sex of the bat changed from "him" to her. If you can imagine a lady bat doing a fan-dancer routine, then you can see what I see, including the beguiling grin on "her" face.

At the end of his e-mail, Brent went on to say, "Jim, this is the same bat you came out to see years ago and did the story on for the paper."

There is no doubt that this is the same bat, and I'll tell you why. Way back in the '60s and '70s when I was working with OMSI, Portland Zoo, and later on, Sunriver, I was banding bats throughout winter in the lava tubes (caves) southeast of Bend. I wanted to see if we could discover the bats' whereabouts and travels during the summer, and to see who came back to the same cave the next winter. That experiment took me down paths I never dreamed of.

At that time, Boyd Cave, with its literal hole-in-the-ground entrance and rickety ladder, wasn't as popular for cavers at it is today. Consequently, there were two species of bats using it as a hibernaculum: Townsend big-eared bats and a group of sweet little myotis I didn't know.

Through banding, I discovered that one of the banded big-eared bats returned to Boyd Cave for eight consecutive years, where it could be found sleeping near the back of the cave almost in the same spot(s) each year. It looked like it was a juvenile male when I banded it with the anodized gold-colored band, and the next year it was a healthy adult male, so that made me happy. (Sometimes I'd get the sex mixed up in juvenile bats...)

Over the next couple of years, whenever I went out to Boyd Cave to visit the banded bat, I noticed a peculiar thing: it moved several times throughout the winter to a new location on the cave's ceiling. As I pondered this phenomenon, I thought it was because of humans visiting the cave who were waking the poor guy up. But then I noticed banded bats moving around in caves where humans didn't go, and wondered why this was.

By looking at foot tracks in the sandy entrance of a little-known cave nearby, I found that other than an occasional bobcat, coyote, skunk and rabbits and hares, humans either didn't know the cave was there, or avoided it. I had banded 12 big-eared bats in the cave, and beginning when they first arrived in fall, I placed a numbered marker under each bat. Throughout the winter, without any noticeable disturbance, each bat moved six to seven times and I wondered why.

One day, while visiting with Dr. Matt Maberry, the Portland Zoo veterinarian who taught Indian elephants how to make babies in captivity, I was invited to come out to the primate research facility in Beaverton. During lunch, I mentioned the hibernating bats moving around, and Dr. Ted Grand, one of the principal researchers at the facility, came up with the answer.

Ted thought that the bats may have come close to dying of oxygen starvation as they went deeper into hibernation, and a build up of lactic acid sent a message to the bat's brain shouting, "Wake up! You're dying!" The bat did just that, flying around in the cave pumping oxygen back into its blood and then hung itself back up and went back to sleep... but not moving around too much so as to maintain the bat's fat reserve. (Turns out, hummingbirds and poor-wills do something very similar - which prompts me to keep telling my wife, Sue, "fat is important for winter survival...")

Another outstanding fact came to light about big-eared bats, one of the banded ones returned to the same cave for over 21 years, and may still be doing so. So there is no question that Brent's "little buddy" has been coming to the barn on Brent's place each summer all these years.

I wish I could share the same happy ending with you about my little buddy that came back to Boyd Cave to hibernate for all those winters, but on his 11th year, regrettably, someone with a .22 shot him and his friends off the ceiling. I found his bloody corpse and others on the floor of the cave right below the place(s) he slept each winter. I dug a couple of the smashed lead projectiles off the ceiling, hoping to meet the person who killed my little buddy and his friends, return the lead, and ask the shooter, "Why...?"

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