Thursday

Celebrating Bats During #BatWeek

Bats, unfortunately, get a bad rap. In reality though, bats are some of the most fascinating and misunderstood critters throughout the world. Bat week is an international, annual celebration, held October 24-31, that aims to raise awareness about the need for bat conservation and the vital role they play in our natural world. 


Many old horror movies and tall tales portray bats as blood-thirsty creatures, all of whom carry rabies, that will intentionally fly into and get stuck in your hair. Let’s start there and bust some bat myths!

Indeed, while it’s true that a limited few species of bat, 3 out of over 1400 species, eat blood from other animals, bats around the world have hugely varied diets, including insects, frogs, fish, nectar, pollen, fruit, birds and even other bats. Researchers believe that the variety of bat species is associated with their ability to adapt to available food sources. Most bats in Texas are insectivorous. As such, bats can act as natural pest control. Researchers have estimated that bats save farmers billions of dollars in pesticide due to their appetite for bugs. So, more bats = fewer bothersome insects and more affordable produce!  

Speaking of some of the ways bats benefit humans, bats provide economic services to people by providing opportunities for tourism. The Congress Avenue bridge in Austin is thought to bring millions of dollars in tourism to Austin each year.



For the gardeners, bat guano is a very effective fertilizer because it is so rich in nitrogen. It’s such a rich energy source that it is the basis of cave ecosystems that operate largely independent of the sun. If you want to use it at home, the rule of thumb is “one teaspoon per tomato plant”.

Next, it should be known that not all bats carry rabies. In fact, rabies is no more prevalent in bats than in other common urban animals, including foxes, raccoons and skunks. Many people mistake bats for rodents but they’re actually a unique group of mammals known as Chiroptera. They are mammals, just like us. Bats give birth to live young, feed their pups with milk, are warm-blooded, have furred bodies, and their wings are comprised of the same bones that form our arms and hands.


Interestingly, bats are the only flying mammal. Other mammals like flying squirrels can glide, which is little more than steerable falling. Bats, though, are capable of powered flight, meaning they can generate lift and speed by flapping their wings. With minute movements of their fingertips, bats can pull off impressive maneuvers, including flips, loops and high-speed turns while they chase down their prey.

Some myths have some grounding in reality. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department bat biologist, Dr. Nate Fuller, recalls a story he heard from what he describes as “an old-timey bat guy”.

“It turns out that bats flying into hair is one of the weirdest myths in bat biology,” Fuller says. “Bats really aren’t interested in you. Sure, they may check you out and wonder what you’re doing in their home, but they don’t want anything from you.”

Fuller says that the story about bats in your hair comes from times long past when ladies would wear their hair up high and wrap them in fine nets. Meanwhile, hygiene wasn’t the best back then and smelly humans would attract bugs. Bugs would attract bats, and bats, confused by the acoustic image of hair in a net, would errantly crash into these towers of hair while chasing down a meal.



Bats vision isn’t as bad as you may think either. A bat’s vision is about as good as the average nocturnal animal, such as a raccoon or fox. However, their most effective sensory system is echolocation. Using high frequency calls and listening to the way these calls echo off objects, bats can sense their environment in extraordinary detail. Some species of bat can detect millimeter-sized changes in the environment, such as ripples on water surfaces. Researchers have also shown that the neurological pathways that provides echolocation information also translates the signals in color. So, while the colors aren’t the same that we may perceive, bats can effectively “see” color with echolocation.

You can learn more interesting bat facts, why humans need bats and how you can help bats at Bat Conservation International’s website

To learn more about the about the animals that call Texas home subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Whether in print or through our mobile app, choose the version that works best for you.

Wednesday

German American Heritage Month - The Food

If you've never wandered around Wurstfest in New Braunfels dipping your Kartoffelpuffers in apple sauce you're definitely missing out.

New Braunfels, like many Texas cities with a strong German heritage, celebrates with a festival honoring its founders' rich traditions. New Braunfels is unique in calling it Wurstfest rather than Oktoberfest, but the general idea is the same. Unfortunately in 2020 many of these celebrations have been canceled or are being held online due to COVID-19. And yes, we'll miss the music, the color, the fanfare. But we'll also miss the food.

Schnitzel © ChronoPhoto | Dreamstime

German immigrants brought with them an array of native recipes, and as it turns out their hearty meat and potatoes diet was a perfect match for Texas. Most of their staples could be grown or raised here as they were on German soil. In fact, two of the foods we think of today as quintessentially Texan likely owe their very existence to German immigrants.

Chicken-fried steak bears more than a passing resemblance to Schnitzel — a tenderized slab of meat, breaded and fried. Germany has a number of specific Schnitzel dishes, as the word itself simply means meat cutlet. But chicken-fried steak seems most like a J√§gerschnitzel, commonly served with a mushroom sauce, or Rahmschnitzel, which is served with a cream sauce. Either way, it's clear that the much beloved CFS has its roots firmly in a German tradition.

German meal prepared at Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm

And of course we can't talk about the German-Texas food connection without discussing smoked meats. We tend to think of Germany + smoked meats = sausage. Move that equation to Texas and you get German Texans + smoked meats = brisket. That's right. Texans owe that smoky, salty, fatty, bark encrusted beefy goodness to German American butchers who decided to pop a brisket in the smoker, instead of in a dutch oven. 

Clearly we owe a lot to German food. 

Which brings us back to Kartoffelpuffer. They're a kind of potato pancake or fritter. More substantial than a hashbrown, but not precisely an entrée either. While some like there's topped with sour cream, I prefer mine with a tart applesauce. Yum!

Kartoffelpuffer © Barmalini | Dreamstime

To learn more about the legacy and heritage of our state subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Whether in print or through our mobile app, choose the version that works best for you.

Monday

Mammal Monday - Prairie Dog

The word rodent generally has a negative connotation. We've been conditioned to associate it with vermin that carry disease and infest domestic and commercial buildings. But the order Rodentia is a massive one, with members that fill practically every habitat on earth. And despite an irrational antipathy towards rats and mice, people can't help but be captivated by the social nature, curiosity and interesting behaviors of the wide variety of rodents found in nature. 

Case in point — the Prairie Dog.

© Samuel McBride | #inthewildhood

Even if you've never seen a colony of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs in person, you've likely seen them featured in documentaries or on a much smaller scale in zoo exhibits. The thing you'll notice immediately is that they never seem to be alone. Prairie Dogs are extraordinarily social animals, with an amazingly structured society. Their "towns" are complex undergrown burrow systems that span hundreds of acres of Panhandle and West Texas soil. Each town is made up of wards (think suburban subdivisions) and within the wards are multiple coteries — extended families made up of an adult male, a group of females and young offspring.

Territory within the burrow complex is based on these coteries and wards. Specific burrows are for their own use and recognition is an important aspect of all social interaction.

Two individuals coming upon one another will bare their teeth and touch them. If one isn't a member of the coterie it's a swift goodbye! If the two are from the same coterie the teeth touching becomes more extended, likened to kissing, and then play generally ensues. It is their playful antics that make Black-tailed Prairie Dogs so engaging to watch. They nuzzle, wrestle and groom each other, reinforcing the bonds of their coterie.

Of course, one of the behaviors that makes them so endearing isn't a play behavior at all but rather an alarm. Prairie dogs foraging outside their burrows are constantly in communication with one another, alert to the dangers presented by their many predators. At least one sentry will remain on duty ready to cry out an alarm at the first sign of danger.  The others then run back to burrow openings and take up the warning call, dashing into burrows if the danger is extreme.

© Samuel McBride | #inthewildhood

The Black-tailed Prairie Dog is relatively common in the areas of Texas where they are still found. But the numbers today represent less than 1% of their historic populations. This is due primarily to habitat loss to ranching and farming. They remain, however, a keystone species. Other animals depend on them for shelter — burrowing owls, endangered black-footed ferrets, and a various fox species all co-opt their burrows. And of course they are an important prey item for rattlesnakes, hawks and coyotes.

To learn more about the about the animals that call Texas home subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Whether in print or through our mobile app, choose the version that works best for you.