By: Korie Marshall

Jim Sweeney moved from New Brunswick when he was 17, and worked on the rail as a breakman and engineer. He used to work in a mill in McBride, but has been living in Prince George since the 1950’s. Now retired, he’s taken up building bird houses and a somewhat less common hobby – building bat houses.

Sweeney received a bird house as a Christmas present from his daughter in 1998 and though “Hey, I could make these.” So he started making a number of bird house styles, and doing research to make sure he was building them the right way for the birds he wanted to attract. Many different birds prefer different types and locations of houses. He’s also found it important to make sure the bottom of the bird house is removable (usually attached by
screws) so that it can be cleaned if necessary. And he also started making bat houses.

“I can talk to you forever about bats – did you know they can eat one quarter of their weight in mosquitoes a night?” asks Sweeney. Some pregnant and nursing bats can eat more than that – up to their own weight – in one night. “There’s only one type of bat in Prince George, but down the Robson Valley there are eight.”

Sweeney has been studying bats for many years, and was a participant of the North American Bat House Research Project, coordinated by Bat Conservation International. They work to help conserve the more than 1,300 species of bats around the world and their ecosystems, many of which are endangered and threatened. Worldwide, loss of habitat is the biggest threat to bats, with almost a thousand species listed as vulnerable and almost a hundred more listed as endangered or at imminent risk of extinction. In North America, over 5.7 million bats have been killed by White-nose Syndrome. First discovered in New York in 2006, White-nose Syndrome is caused by a cold-loving fungus that attacks bats in hibernation, killing nearly the entire colony. It has been spreading across eastern North America, and bat populations are very slow to recover.

But bats are critical to many ecosystems. They can eat vast amounts of insects, including some of the most damaging agricultural pests, help pollinate plants and flowers, help spread fruit seeds to help restore damaged tropical rainforests, and can provide a valuable natural fertilizer – bat droppings or “guano” – when mined responsibly. They aren’t blind, and they don’t get stuck in your hair, though they may “dive bomb” you if they feel threatened or disoriented. And they are actually more closely related to humans than they are to rats and mice.

“I paint the houses black to help them warm up in the sun, and make sure they are sealed well at the cracks so the heat stays in.” Sweeney uses a special black mesh to line the inside of the house to give good grip for the bats, especially the young ones. It is rather expensive, and he can only get it from Minnesota, but he’s found it works best.

“The mothers will move the baby around five or six times a day looking for the best warmth in the bat house.” Bats generally rear one pup a year, and they are mammals like us, so the mothers nurse their young.

Sweeney’s smaller bat house, about three feet long and two wide, will hold about 250 bats, but he builds a larger one as well that holds up to 450. He gets his wood – his own specification of clear 1×8 cedar – from Midget Mills in McBride, and often comes to the valley for a day out and lunch with his friend and their wives.

“I’ve been in the papers before, some would say I get more ink than I deserve,” Sweeney says with a smile. But he’s quite happy to share anything he knows about bats with you. And he has lots of advice about where to mount your bat house if you pick up one – like it should be about 10 feet above ground, within a quarter mile of water like a stream or a lake, and in a spot that gets lots of sun during the day, especially early in the morning. You can mount it in the trees, but bats will usually colonize it quicker if you mount it in a clear area.

And if you want a bat house to help get rid of pesky insects like mosquitoes, you might also be interested in Sweeney’s lady bug house as well – lady bugs can help get rid of garden pests like aphids. For more info, call Jim at 250-563-0917.