MONTGOMERY - Seven forestry technology majors from Pennsylvania College of Technology recently got a hands-on lesson in spring cleaning - at a bat condo.
Wildlife diversity biologist Mario Giazzon, of the state Game Commission, spoke to the students about bats and what is going on with the species in Pennsylvania.
Years ago, a bat colony established itself in the attic of the Maple Hill United Methodist Church, on the corner of Ridge and Turnback roads in Brady Township.
While the location may have been ideal for the bats, the humans who used the church were less enthused.
In 2001, Penn College students built the bat condo at the college's Allenwood campus, in hopes of encouraging the bats to move out of the church. It worked, for the most part. Very few bats still visit the church, instead preferring the house built precisely for them on the border of the Game Commission's State Game Lands 252.
However, like any other residence, the condo - which can hold up to 3,000 bats - needs to be cleaned every so often.
Inside, bat excrement, called guano, piles up and needs to be removed every year.
Forestry professors such as Jack Fisher said he and other instructors use these hands-on activities to help teach their students.
As part of a lab for a wildlife management course taught by Fisher, the students arrived early in the morning on March 30 at the site of the condo to do some spring cleaning.
"It's a hands-on application. We talk about bat populations in class, and this is an effort in conjunction with the Game Commission to help improve habitat," Fisher said.
Home sweet home
Female bats use the condo as a nursery to raise their pups over the summer. They do not hibernate inside the house, so it lies empty in winter months.
Openings in the front, back and side under the eaves allow the bats to come and go.
On cleaning day, duties were divvied out to the students. Those who were picked to do the cleaning had to get into white Tyvek suits and wear respirators to protect them from any disease the guano could carry.
The students carefully opened four locked doors on the bottom of the condo and, as the guano fell out, it was collected in buckets.
The full buckets then were weighed and the weights recorded.
Students will use a mathematical equation and the overall weight of the guano to estimate how many bats used the condo over the year, Fisher said.
"Then we give that data to the Game Commission," he added.
The commission scientists use the data in larger studies it does on bat species.
"They will take our data and also data from around the state and it will help them get a measure as to the bat population, whether it's increasing or decreasing," Fisher said.
The bat population in Pennsylvania and across the U.S. is in dire straights because of a disease called white-nose syndrome. The fungal infection is fatal and has killed some six million bats in North America since it was discovered in 2006.
Housekeeping equals important data
In 2009, a record 71.27 pounds of bat guano was removed from the condo. This spring, however, only 10 1/2 pounds were removed, Fisher.
"We will take this data and compare it to last year and the year before," he said. "It will help us know what is going on with the bat population in this area."
The guano either will be discarded or it may end up on flower beds at the school, Fisher said. He didn't elaborate on any special precautions the school takes when discarding guano.
The class also checks the feces pile for dead pups. This time, they found two.
Field exercises such as this one are why students come to Penn College, Fisher said.
"Hands-on ... this is what they come here for," he said. "This is what I believe attracts most students to Penn College. We are a hands-on technology (school)."
"It lets you know what's going on rather then reading it," said Ty Buffington, of Lykens.
Amy Moyer, of Sunbury, was recording the data that day. "It gives us an advantage over other students," she said.
Students in the forestry major also work in conjunction with the Game Commission on State Game Lands 252, improving habitats and cutting trees and slash, which are tracts of swampy ground.