O'Donel students go to bat for nature project

   They may be creepy and even mythologized in horror fiction and movies, but night flying, insect eating, web winged bats have friends at O'Donel High School where students in an industrial arts program have built nesting boxes for the fabled, fanged, flying mammals.
   The idea came from Level III student Elizabeth Tuck and was picked up by technology and science teacher Joe Santos, who saw it as a learning opportunity for his students. They spent about a month researching, planning, designing and finally crafting seven bat houses and nine houses for Boreal Owls. The structures are being donated to Memorial University's Botanical Garden.
   Christine Gillard, who works in environmental education at the Botanical Garden, was delighted to accept the gift.
   "We have Oxen Pond on our property and we do have a few bat nurseries, very large bat houses, but any more that we can set up, any more habitat that we can create, that's pretty much what the Botanical Garden is about," she said.
   A safe sleeping habitat is important for the bat population. Newfoundland’s Little Brown bats are about the only population of the species in North America that is not under threat from a disease called White Nose Syndrome.
   "We've actually been pretty lucky that we haven't had the problems that are on the mainland with the White Nose Syndrome, which is a virus that spreads from bat to bat and sometimes disturbs their hibernation process," said Gillard. "Eventually, if they wake up a lot during hibernation, they end up not being able to keep enough energy to stay alive. In Newfoundland we've been lucky that we've actually not had that problem. But that still doesn't mean that there's not a constant threat on their habitat. There are places where they like to sleep in the daytime. In the summer, it's in old dead trees. Well, we have a bad habit of cutting down old dead trees."
   That's why Gillard appreciates the initiative of the O'Donel students. "We always like to say, 'If you build it, they will come,'" she said.
   Little Brown Bats are great to have around, Gillard added, because they can each eat up to 600 mosquitoes a day, about half their body weight. "They're the true vampires, they're the ones drinking your blood," she said of the flies.
   Gillard said many people see bats, but just don't realize it. "I'm a soccer player and I like to play down at Quidi Vidi at King George V field and I see them all the time," she said. "And I'm always pointing them out to people. It's by a lake and there are big lights on the field, so they're flying around catching all the moths and insects that are flying around the lights and sometimes you'll see them dashing across the field after insects, but people look up and just think they're birds."
   The wingspan of a Little Brown Bat is about the width between your thumb and pinky finger when you splay the fingers on your hand. "They are relatively small, their body size is about the size of an adult thumb," Gillard noted.
While a number of schools have industrial arts programs, O’Donel is the first in the province to develop this project.
   "This is great," said Gillard. "I was thrilled when I was first called and told about it... Any sort of donations like this we'd love to have, anything that helps us create that habitat."
Gillard said the workmanship on the houses is fantastic and actually better than the ones that were erected at the Botanical Garden back in the 1970s, which ended up being taken over by birds.
   "These ones are perfect," Gillard said. "The entrance is on the bottom, because bats don't need a floor in their house, they want to be able to let go quickly and fly out. The ridging along the bottom they will use for climbing. Bat wings are just like our hands, they have all five digits, they just also have a membrane in between them. So on the top of every wing they have thumbs and they use those little thumbs for crawling up things.
   O’Donel’s skilled trades program is one of the most popular in the school. Some 120 students take technology courses. That’s as many as the workshop can accommodate during a school week, said the head of the department, Rod Lundrigan. But it’s only a quarter of the number of students interested in taking the programs.
   "There's not a period that the shop is not in use," added Santos.
"We have great support from our administration," said Lundrigan. "They believe in this program."
   Two separate classes of 22 students and 23 students, drawn from all three high school levels, worked on the project, with one class building the bat houses and the other the owl houses.
   Santos and his students took the time to research the bats as part of the process of developing a design for a house that meets their needs; hence the ridge lines cut horizontally along the wall for crawling and the inch wide slots at the bottom to allow the bats to get in while keeping larger predators out.
   "Hopefully it will work," said Santos.
   The project started when Tuck came to the workshop looking for scrap wood, because the Girl Guides unit she was working with were contemplating a similar project.
   "She was the impetus for this," said Lundrigan, who was delighted with the request, because it met another need of the shop.
   "I teach Skilled Trades and when we go through the material in here and cut things up, we have no use for it afterwards," he explained. "And this concerned both me and her. We don't burn it because of the glues and resins in plywood."
   Tuck’s idea to build bat houses from scraps that would otherwise have ended up in the landfill seemed like a great solution. It also met Santos' requirements to expose students to a project that required research, an examination of indigenous life, as well as design and construction.
   "Everybody's happy and that was a big selling feature for us," Lundrigan said.
The bat and owl houses turned out so good, some of the teachers at the school have expressed an interest in buying them.
   Gillard, meanwhile, is eager to see the houses put up and then watching what happens.
   "I'm looking forward to seeing something actually move in," she said.
Santos said the project may be repeated. "It was very successful," he allowed. "And it's a feel good project. It excites the students that something is actually going to be living in something they made... It's a win-win for everybody."

Posted on January 13, 2016 .