Hey, Texas! Get outside and visit your wild neighbors.

by Melissa Hudnall

Texans! Want to see exotic birds? Look out the window! Want to see 250,000 bats? Just go outside tonight and look up! As a wildlife teacher and outreach presenter for the museum, I’ve had a chance to talk with future generations about the amazing wildlife found in Texas. Usually students think you have to travel to exotic lands to see the really cool animals, and they’re shocked to hear about all of the incredible animals they’ve been living right next to in Texas.

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Texas wildlife artifacts for the mobile classroom. Sahil Patel

That’s why I was excited to see the new HMNS at Sugar Land exhibit Treehouses: Look Who’s Living in the Trees!, because it makes these critters more accessible and feeds a natural curiosity that most children already seem to have about wildlife. After visiting this exhibit, young naturalists may start asking questions like, “Who made those track marks?” and exclaiming things like, “I know what that scat came from!”, which would make any parent’s heart swell with pride. Luckily, Texas is the perfect place to raise a young naturalist.

Look in our trees and under our bridges, and you might have a chance to see the only true flying mammal: bats! (Sorry, “flying” squirrels. Gliding doesn’t count.) Texas has tons of bats. In fact, we have so many that they are often picked up on radar used for weather reports.

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Radar around the Bracken Cave in San Antonio shows a cloud of bats. Every blue dot is one in flight.

Everyone’s heard about the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin and the Bracken Bat Cave in San Antonio, but visit these locations in the winter and you might be disappointed to find they have migrated for the season. Drive just 15 minutes away from the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and you can see bats year round at Waugh Bridge. This bridge has roughly 250,000 Mexican free tailed bats who would love to meet you. Before you go, be sure to get them a Thank You card, because the bats under this one bridge in Houston eat up to 2.5 tons of insects each night!

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This Mexican free-tailed bat might look cute and cuddly, but don’t pick them up like you see in this picture. Being mammals, they can carry rabies. Report any bats that you find on the ground in the day time or behaving strangely. They could be sick.

This is the perfect season to visit Waugh Bridge, as baby Mexican free tail bats test out their flying skills for the first time in early July. Just be sure to watch nearby towers for local birds of prey, such as red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons, who are keeping a watchful eye on these bats as a source of food.

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This peregrine falcon can reach speeds of 200 mph diving to catch its prey. This is a preserved specimen that travels to school with our Wildlife on Wheels program. Sahil Patel

In fact, Texas is a huge birding state. Individuals travel from all over the United States just to see the colorful migrants that pass through here, like Cerulean Warblers, Golden-cheeked Warblers, and Vermillion Flycatcher. Our Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife does a really nice job of highlighting some of the phenomenal birds that pay us a visit, for those of us (me) who do not have the patience for actual birding.

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Vermillion Flycatcher

Another adorable, and partially arboreal animal is the North American Porcupine.

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North American Porcupine

Looking for a kiss under the mistletoe this winter? This rodent is happy to oblige. Porcupines have been known to slowly amble up trees in search of mistletoe and pine needles when their preferred shrubbery is coated with snow. However, you may wish to rethink this close encounter, not only because of their dangerous defensive quills, but also because of their orange teeth.

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The orange coloration of the North American porcupine’s incisors is due to the high amount of iron in their enamel.

These teeth are not orange due to poor hygiene, but rather because of iron found in the enamel. This iron oxidizes, forming a rusty color. It’s the same reason your blood is red.

So Texans, get your wildlife education with HMNS and HMNS Sugar Land, then go out and explore! After all, now that you know their home address, it would be rude to ignore your neighbors…

Help us thank the birds and bees (and bats, moths and flies!) during National Pollinator Week

For the next several paragraphs, we’ll be talking about a few very special flying creatures (and some others) that are called pollinators — to whom we owe huge thanks for providing much of the food we eat! 

Without these pollinators to carry their pollen from flower to flower, plants could not form fruits or seeds to reproduce themselves and feed our whole ecosystem of hungry animals — including humans. Did you know that at least one of every three bites you take is thanks to a pollinator? (More if you are vegetarian.)

Although the world’s pollinators include many of the animals you’d expect and more (e.g., also butterflies, beetles, monkeys, even some rodents and lizards), the most important pollinators of our fruit and vegetable crops are insects, particularly bees. Unfortunately, today many pollinators are in danger due to habitat loss, overuse of insecticides, and other factors. To learn more about the threats facing pollinators and what you can do to help, visit the Pollinator Partnership’s webpage at pollinator.org.

National Pollinator Week, June 16-23 this year, was initiated by a group of biologists calling themselves the “Pollinator Partnership,” whose goal was to bring the public’s attention to the vital ecosystem services provided by pollinating bees, butterflies and moths, beetles, birds, and bats — and to make people aware of the urgent issue of their declining populations. 

Seven years ago, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to designate a week each June to commemorate the importance of pollinators. Pollinator Week has now grown to be an international celebration.

From feasting to beekeeping, learn more about the efforts of these hardworking — and essential — animals in three special events planned for National Pollinator Week. 

Behind-the-Scenes Tour of the Cockrell Butterfly Center
Tuesday, June 17, 6 p.m.

In addition to the Butterfly Center and Insect Zoo, you will visit the containment room and rooftop greenhouses — areas not open to the public where staff cares for the Museum’s butterflies and other insects. Kids 5 and above welcome! Click here for ticket info.

Beekeeping Class
Wednesday, June 18, 6 p.m.

From the tools and techniques needed to start your own apiary to tips of daily life with bees, beekeeper Shelley Rice will share the basics of starting your own beehive and how to harvest wax and honey naturally and safely. Participants will meet at Shelley’s private apiary. Advance registration required. Click here for ticket info.

Cultural Feast: A Culinary Cultivation — All About the Birds and the Bees
Sunday, June 22, 6 p.m.

In the perfect kick off to summer, join the staff of the Cockrell Butterfly Center at Haven for a five-course meal showcasing the contributions of bees and other pollinators to our food sources prepared by chef Randy Evans. Culinary historian Merrianne Timko will discuss the culinary history of these pollinator-focused ingredients. Advance reservations required by June 16. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets online. 

Na na na na na na na … BATS, man!

For bats being amazing examples of evolutionary resilience and fascinating, intelligent creatures with complex, long lives that perform invaluable ecological roles, we humans don’t seem to appreciate them very much. They’ve had a bad rep in cultures around the world due to their association with the night for millennia, but what’s this based on, really? Fear of the dark? Jealousy? Our imaginations — which can make almost anything out to be our “enemy”?

Like many other things deeply ingrained in our social consciousness, these feelings have been added into our speech patterns. We often use an association with bats to point out odd or unfavorable behavior.

Take for instance:

“Without my glasses, I’m blind as a bat.”

“From his erratic behavior, we were sure he had bats in the belfry.”

“She ran away like a bat out of hell.”

Well, how about this:

“Without my glasses, I’m blind as a bat. No, really I’m fine — I don’t need them. My sense of smell and hearing are better than using sight anyway. Oh, and I’ve been around for 50 million years, so I’m pretty sure I know the lay of the land anyway, so NBD. By the way, I provide an invaluable service to humankind by eating the insects which seem to cause them so much trouble.”

OK, a bit wordy, but you get the idea – bats are freakin’ awesome. They’re the only mammal that legitimately flies – having developed wings out of what used to be hands (look at their skeleton and you’ll see how crazy this is; it would be like having webbed fingers that go the length of your body!).

And they live nearly everywhere on earth, except for some small, isolated islands. Now that’s what I call evolutionarily resilient.

Bats are native to the orange areas on the map. (Which is pretty much everywhere.)

In spite of all this awesomeness, bats in America are under threat from a new disease called White-Nose Syndrome. This disease is caused by a fungus which is taking hold in caves along the entire northeast corridor. It infects bats while they’re hibernating, so their bodies have essentially shut down and can’t fight it. The fungus causes their flesh to deteriorate as the spores take hold and suck the water and nutrients out of the bat. This causes them to wake up and search for food (which they can’t find, because it’s winter), wasting the rest of their fat reserves and leading to starvation.

The fungus appeared in New York in 2007 and has since killed millions of bats who seem to have little to no way to fight it. It came to New York from Europe; however, the bats across the pond don’t seem to mind nearly as much as American bats. This leads some to believe that they’ve evolved to be resistant to it (think Black Plague resistance in European populations — or lack thereof when smallpox came to America).

White Nose Syndrome by found county

But that’s not to say all hope is lost! Scientists across the country are performing research to learn more about the fungus — mapping where it’s been found, how it takes hold, and performing experiments to prevent the onset of the disease.

(You can learn more here, here, here, here, and here.)

But one of the best ways to help save the bats is having a well educated population that’s invested in the little furry flying guys. Lucky for YOU, there’s an exhibit at HMNS Sugar Land opening on Sat., Jan. 18 all about bats! Come to Masters of the Night: The True Story of Bats and learn all about these amazing creatures (and, come spring, you can check them out in Houston under the Waugh St. Bridge).

 

Nota bene: Baby bats are super adorable. I hereby submit that they should become part of the never-ending flood of baby animal pictures shared around on social media as to better their public perception.

Don’t believe me? Just check these out.

Educator How-To: We’re batty for ornithopters

Bats have frightened, awed, and inspired for millennia. Leonardo da Vinci used the bat’s amazing wing structure as inspiration for his version of the ornithopter — a machine which flies using flapping bird-like wings. No one knows for sure if he ever built or tested his invention, but Cardanus, a contemporary of Leonardo wrote that he had tried, “in vain”, to get the orinthopter aloft.

A sketch of Da Vinci’s ornithopter

Here is a version of Leonardo’s creation that you can try your hand at constructing and flying. Our version is technically a glider, but looks much the same as Leonardo’s ornithopter design.

Materials:

  • Cardstock copy of orinthopter template
  • Large plain craft stick
  • Paper clips – large and regular size
  • Craft glue
  • Scissors
  • Scotch Tape ™
  • Markers
  • Thin hemp-type string
  • 18th inch hole-puncher
  • Bat specimen or pictures of bats
  • Picture of Leonardo’s orrnithopter

Building the Ornithopter:

  • Display the picture of Leonardo’s ornithopter and discuss how he came up with the design idea after spending a great deal of time observing birds.
  • Study the bat specimen and/or bat pictures. Compare and contrast the bat wings with the ornithopter wings: Are the wings more bird-like or bat-like?
  • Color a large craft stick using a brown marker.
  • Color the wings and tail on the orinthopter template and carefully cut out the pieces.
  • Give the wings shape by closing the small V-shaped notch on each wing so that both pieces touch and then securing on the underside with transparent tape.
  • Using craft glue, attach the wing and tail pieces to the craft stick as illustrated by the picture below. Allow time for the glue to dry.

Bat Orthinopter 2

  • Next, bend the wings up along the large V in the wing pattern and carefully crease.
  • Use a 1/8th inch hole-puncher to make small holes just to the inside where the wings were taped to give them shape.
  • Use a piece of thin string to create a loop through the holes with a loose knot to secure it in place. This serves to keep the wings from spreading too far and to adjust the wings up when tightened.

Bat Orthinopter 1

  • It’s time to test the ornithopter! Make different sized paper clips available. Use these to properly distribute the weight of the ornithopter for better flight.
  • Spend time re-engineering the after the primary test flight.