Live creatures the highlight of annual Bat Festival

September 21, 2012

"That's so cool," said retired science teacher Kathleen Hohman, standing three feet away from the largest species of bat in the world. "No matter how many times I see it, it never gets old."

The Malaysian Fruit bat, named "Peggy Sue," looked around at the forming crowd with her fox-like face, and twitched her ears.

"Their wingspan can get up to 6 feet," said Rob Mies, a speaker from the Organization for Bat Conservation, as Peggy Sue hung upside down from his arm.

"I like how unique it is," said Kofi Barko, an Indiana State University biology major from Ghana. "You don't normally get to see animals close up and outside of their natural habitat like this. It's cool."

Peggy Sue was one of the creatures featured in the sixth annual Bat Festival at Indiana State University.

The event, hosted by the Center for North American Bat Research and Conservation, featured a day portion on the campus of ISU as well as evening events at Terre Haute's Dobbs Park. Presentations by experts in the field allowed attendees to see live bats and birds and learn more about the winged creatures.

"It's neat to help people understand the uniqueness and importance of bats---that they're mammals like us and social like us," Mies said, adding that although many adults come predisposed to dislike bats, their opinions often change after learning more. "They will leave saying, ‘I had no idea bats did that or were helpful. I thought they were all blind and sucked blood.'"

Behind Mies, booths of conservation organizations -such as the Department of Natural Resources or the ISU Recycling Center--lined the hallways of the event, offering free items and informational displays. A silent auction featured a number of bat-related items, whose proceeds go toward keeping the annual event free, said Joy O'Keefe, an assistant professor in the ISU department of biology.

"The annual festival provides us with a great opportunity to engage the community, teaching them about the latest science on bat biology and updating them on conservation issues," she said, adding that about 1,000 people attend the event every year.

In addition to presentations and informative displays, the kid-friendly festival featured crafts, face-painting and an inflatable, life-size cave.

"It's important to teach kids from when they're small, that they don't need to be afraid of bats," said Hohman. "I always tried to do that with my kids."

Her daughter, Laura Hohman, an ISU alumna with a degree in biology, gave a talk about backyard wildlife habitats during the festival.

"I hope that people see that bats are beneficial," said Laura Hohman. She said that in this region, the most helpful attribute of bats is their ability to eat insects. "If you think of the amount of pesticides it would take to accomplish the same thing, you can see the huge environmental impact bats have."

Attendees could see bats eating insects during the evening portion of the festival, which featured a hike, kids' activities and live bird programs.

"Every bird is designed for how they hunt," said Mark Booth, a presenter from Take Flight! Wildlife Education. He pointed to the Harris Hawk's long skinny legs and described how they reach inside bushes to capture prey.

"Whoa!" exclaimed a few onlookers as the hawk swooped over the crowd, just a few inches above their heads. She took flight to a nearby tree before returning to her perch on Booth's arm.

"Heel," he said jokingly as she flew back to him.

Booth pointed out the ducks on the nearby pond who were content near the shore -and the hawk, their predator.

"Those are definitely domesticated ducks. That's not normal behavior," he said as the ducks quacked away ignorantly near a chuckling audience.

After the presentation, six-year-old Steven Smith said he had been hoping to come to the Bat Festival for a couple of years and was finally able to make it this year.

"My favorite was the peregrine falcon," he said, "because of the black patch on her eye."

Finally, the festival concluded with an echolocation demonstration, where onlookers could see how bat research is carried out.

"The diversity of these creatures is amazing. That's probably what keeps some people interested in and studying bats for 50 years," said Mies. "We're still learning new things."

Photos:

http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Bat-Festival/i-VJkN3Vd/0/L/DSC8728-L.jpgA Malaysian Fruit bat, named "Peggy Sue," looks at the crowd gathered for the sixth annual Bat Festival. ISU Photo

http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Bat-Festival/i-jjrDpjc/0/L/DSC1525-53-L.jpgMark Booth, a presenter from Take Flight! Wildlife Education, taught Bat Festival participants about owls and hawks. ISU Photo

Contact: Joy O'Keefe, assistant professor, Department of Biology, Indiana State University, at Joy.OKeefe@indstate.edu

Writer: Bethany Donat, media relations assistant, Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, bdonat@sycamores.indstate.edu