“I grew up understanding that everything had its place and role,” said Mary Jean Quirk, whose main pursuance in life has been breaking preconceived notions surrounding bats, while simultaneously helping build what she refers to as a “wise respect” for them.
“I wouldn’t go up and cuddle with a mountain lion, but I’m also not constantly fearful of the idea of them living in proximity to humans,” she said.
Most are in the latter group when it comes to the prospect of a bat within any fathomable distance of their property. It’s for that reason that Quirk (better known as “Corky,” a nickname she begrudgingly accepted years ago from a mispronunciation of her last name) founded NorCal Bats — an organization that safely removes bats from peoples’ residences and brings injured, sick or orphaned bats back to health.
And if there were any doubters of her allegiance to Yolo County’s bat population — the transformation she made to her house may be convincing enough. She has a room designated to bats in rehab; complete with special humidity controls, cages stacked high, bat cuisine and other necessities.
The mock bat cave hosts approximately 10 bats for most the year, but that number can triple in summer, as the baby bats are born in July. Although her children are fascinated with the creatures, she’s the only one qualified to perform the grocery list of responsibilities the one-woman operation encompasses:
“I have to feed a couple bats that don’t eat on their own; there’s one bat that recently underwent a surgery for a hernia that’s now on antibiotics; sometimes I get injured bats in and I’ll have to work with a veterinarian to fix that; when I get babies in here I have to give them a formula … I’ll spend probably a couple hours a day on this in the slow season, and more like five or six when it gets busy.”
Not that she’d mention it, but she does all this as a 50-year-old mother of eight, while working for a local nonprofit, the Yolo Basin Foundation. For those awaiting the obligatory cliché — she finds the massive undertaking to be worth it — batty as it seems.
So … why all the fuss for bats?
As Quirk coaxed a group of bats she had rehabbed out of their carrier case and carefully pet each on the head inside her workplace Wednesday afternoon — for a second it resembled how one would treat the resident housecat or dog.
Appearances, however, can be deceiving. It’s not that tender a relationship, Quirk said.
“They’re wild animals,” she explained. “They look to me for food, not affection. They do have unique characteristics, and you get to know them and know what to expect of each one. They’re not pets — they don’t get that kind of attachment.”
Still, there was a distinct fondness she possessed for the winged mammals. It would be hard not to form a connection, considering each of the one-time rescue bats had been in her care for more than two years.
The bats Quirk showcased that day suffered differing sorts of permanent disabilities prior to rehabilitation, meaning a release back into the wild was never an option. She explained this as she lifted one of the bats to exhibit the ripped wing that had left it handicapped.
“I always liked the underdog”
Quirk’s road to learning to nurture these creatures was a long one.
The San Leandro native earned an education at Humboldt State — a bachelor of sciences in natural resources — and held an early interest in environmental education. After graduation, she taught children about the outdoors at Campfire USA.
It was not until 2005 that she began learning about bats, after finding work at the Yolo Basin Foundation. At that time, the local nonprofit hosted another bat education program.
“The more I listened, the more I found interesting,” Quirk said. “I just found them fascinating … their adaptations and diversity. I always liked the underdog; bats get a bad rap despite them being vital, so I found it fun to change people’s minds about something they don’t know about.”
When the existing bat education program was disbanded in 2006, Quirk decided to form NorCal Bats and persevere with the project. She made a hefty investment to setup infrastructure inside her residence so she could do rescue and rehabilitation, as well.
These days, Quirk said NorCal Bats “comes out as a wash” financially. The presentations she gives at schools and community events are fee-based — helping cover costs of medical work, supplies, insurance and permits — but most of the work results in no income.
Quirk sets out to do at least one presentation a week in local school districts. In total, she ends up doing a few hundred demonstrations at schools, fairs and libraries each year.
“It’s a lot of work,” she admitted. “I have a soft spot, there’s something to be said for helping another life. But really, the biggest reason I do it is for the education. To help people learn and understand that these are kind, gentle, wild animals that are not out to farm on humans.”
Truth beyond the blind, blood-sucking stereotypes
When Norcal Bats recovers bats from homes, Quirk often interfaces with the residents, and will use the opportunity to further spread knowledge on the mammals.
“Rescuing just the one bat is important,” she said. “But, with education, I can rescue so many more. I can save a whole colony living in someone’s house — (which) understandably isn’t wanted there but can be humanely removed – instead of being killed out of fear.
“Most people may not want the animal to die, but they might not fully understand bats either.”
Quirk said the most common misconception is that the majority of bats are rabies-stricken health hazards, and that they can pass it through a variety of means. She explained that bats can only infect humans with the disease through exposure to saliva, not through the air or their droppings.
That’s often a concern people have as Quirk leads tours in the Yolo Basin Wildlife Area, east of Davis, to bring people face-to-face with the colony of bats that soars next to the Causeway.
The population of Mexican free-tailed bats that occupies the Yolo Bypass is estimated to reach upwards of 250,000 when returning for the summer to give birth to their young.
It is a mystery where the bulk of this colony migrates to in the fall, Quirk said, because the Mexican free-tailed bats can fly 2-miles upwards at speeds of 60 miles per hour — too fast for a transmitter to track. The current thought is the migration path runs along the coast of California, not Mexico.
There are other, smaller colonies of varying species of bats — all insectivorous - inhabiting Yolo County. Each does its part in pest management for the local agriculture by consuming at least half their weight in insects daily.
A colony of 1,000 bats will eat the equivalent of two brown grocery bags full of bugs each night. Part of Quirk’s goal is helping people realize how truly financially valuable these animals are to the farming system.
“There is a shift in mindset for some communities,” she said. “I’d like to think I’ve made a difference in Davis. At least I hope so, because we have so many bats here. And, yeah, there’s a lot by the Causeway, but there’s a number of homes that have bats in attics, gazebos, under picnic table umbrellas.”
Tales from the past, plans for the future
When NorCal Bats gets a phone call about a bat in need of rescue — it can come from anywhere within the greater Sacramento Valley and the foothills. Quirk, who sometimes recruits the help of volunteers, will drive out to the location with necessary equipment to handle the intruder(s) on the ready.
But, there have been occasions when the situation called for more than Quirk’s bat handling expertise, a pair of gloves and a singular cage.
“There’s one rescue in particular that sticks out most in my mind,” Quirk said. “There was a period of god-awful heat a few years back, something like 15 days of triple-digit temperatures. It happened to hit right as there were baby bats, so the weather had caused many to fall from their nests. Well, 439 of them happened to fall one day in downtown Sacramento.
“It was crazy … We went out there, hydrated each one and triaged the group. The Fire Department and Animal Control helped get bats placed back in their roosts. Even former (Sacramento) mayor Heather Fargo got involved … there was a great deal of community involvement. It was essential for the population that we rescued these pups, considering bats have one baby each.”
NorCal Bats’ rescues are typically not such dire circumstances, Quirk added, with many just being someone with a bat trapped under a box, or on a wall, just observing it.
“I remember getting a call once from a woman absolutely terrified — with a bat trapped under a milk crate and covered with blanket in her house,” she said. “In my mind, I was thinking it’s a little overkill for what was probably a small Mexican free-tail.
“But it was actually a large Hoary bat, a solitary species that will often roll on its back and fling both wings open as it flies at you, hissing,” she added with a laugh. “I understood the scare after realizing that.”
Quirk plans to continue her involvement in rescues such as these, and meanwhile operate NorCal Bats’ educational program. She will continue doing so without any support granted by federal agencies or major corporations.
As for her aspirations for the organization’s future, “I ask myself that question all the time,” she professed. Quirk mentioned an ambition to reach out to more schools — expanding NorCal Bats’ instructional aspect — after retirement.
“At that point, I’d really like it to grow more,” Quirk added. “But time constraints do stop me from achieving that at the moment. I’m certain one day I will be doing more bat conservation work … It’s business as usual for now.”
— Reach Brett Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett