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Holy Flying Bloodsuckers, Batman!

Marcos Trinidad 0:00

[ambient street sounds] This neighborhood is so cool. Like, you drive through this residential area. I think we passed by like some low riders, and I think I saw a dune buggy. And people are riding their horses. [theme music begins] You got these vaqueros just hanging out. And we're in this urban area looking for bats.

Miguel Ordeñana 0:24

And we're about to approach the 60 freeway, which runs right over the San Gabriel River. Sometimes it's totally dry, but right now there's some water, which is exciting because that means more bat activity.

Marcos Trinidad 0:36

Hey, what's up? This is Human/Nature. And I'm Marcos Trinidad. Every week I'll invite you to get out into the nature of your neighborhood, with the help of people who see the world a little differently. Today, it's all about bats. When it comes to keeping the nature in our cities balanced and thriving, these little guys are ecosystem superheroes. And you might be thinking, Well, I live in an apartment, not The Batcave. I don't see any bats around here. Well, my next guest might change your mind about that. Here to tell us where to find these elusive flying mammals is an expert, someone I like to call the Batman of Los Angeles. [original theme song to Batman TV series]

While his real name is Miguel Ordeñana, he works for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County as a community science manager. Miguel runs this program called the Backyard Bat Survey. It empowers people to become urban bat trackers, allowing them to report bat sightings from anywhere. [sounds of people talking in background] His mission is to set the story straight about these misunderstood animals living all around us. [in background someone says, "Really cool."] Miguel and I met up at the Whittier Narrows Nature Center, where the parks supervisor Colleen was so cool. She let us just sit there and chop it up.

[laughing] What's up, man?

Miguel Ordeñana 2:07

Good to see you.

Marcos Trinidad 2:09

Thanks for coming out. Oh do you see they put some new floor in and

Miguel Ordeñana 2:12

I like what you did, Colleen.

Colleen 2:14

Like it? We've been trying really hard. I mean, really hard...

Marcos Trinidad 2:18

Um, tell me a little bit about bats. Why bats? Why are you considered the Batman of LA?

Miguel Ordeñana 2:28

Well, bats intrigue me because they're mysterious. Um and they're controversial. Growing up in LA going to Dodger games and observing them flying over night games, attracted to stadium lights or the moths that are attracted to stadium lights and, and feeding there. I thought, Man, those can't be birds. But nobody's ever told me that bats live out here. And I think how many other kids, how many other Angelenos have that same perspective of like, how are those birds out so late? And is that a bat? But it can't be, like that kind of like second guessing yourself because of a lack of awareness, lack of education about bats. And so I guess if we're always basing our perceptions on a certain organism, especially as important as bats on what we see in the media, what we see in movies and assume that they're just dangerous, they're just all rabid, I think it can be really damaging and result in either avoidance of that animal, that issue, or um persecution outright of that animal.

Marcos Trinidad 3:42

So we have to stay away from that fake news.

Miguel Ordeñana 3:43

[lauging] Exactly. Yeah. So, and that was my fear. I think that gave me that sense of urgency, like, we got to do something now. Before we wipe out all these vulnerable populations from LA, we gotta get the word out how important they are, how possible it is to coexist with these animals before it's too late.

Marcos Trinidad 4:03

Um, tell me about the bat survey.

Miguel Ordeñana 4:05

So yeah, the Backyard Bat Survey is a community science project where the Natural History Museum scientists partner with community members to get a better understanding of bat diversity and activity in the Los Angeles area. And so we use acoustic detectors to record the species specific locations of bats to get a baseline of bat activity and species richness in the LA area. I put these detectors in people's backyards, these, [music begins] their personal spaces that they're kind enough to to let me use for an entire year. Um, I'll do the same now at schools, libraries, Boys and Girls Club and other small urban open spaces. And I think the more trusted community centers that I target in this project, the more connected a wider and more diverse audience will be to local nature. And it's fun because you're in places that are very industrial neighborhoods, for instance. And some of these families have lived in these homes for generations and have never seen bats or never considered bats being there. And in a matter of a couple of weeks or a month, I can tell them and have evidence in front of them, showing them that they do have nature that is using their neighborhood, they do have this connection to nature that they didn't know they had before. And then I can give them more information, why they should advocate for keeping these bats around. [music out]

Marcos Trinidad 5:38

What are some of the most interesting areas that you were able to find bats or unexpected areas where you were able to find bats?

Miguel Ordeñana 5:47

So yeah, I mean, one individual, he was at a strip mall. And somehow he found a roost behind a tow away sign in a, in a parking lot, so literally, like the brick wall, the aluminum sign, and a little bit of space behind there. And he somehow observed bats flying out. And then he came back and he saw the same thing the next night. He's like, Oh, man, this could be a roost. We have our idea, even the scientists are like, okay, we're in urban areas, you gotta have an open mind. Um, let's look at bridges in addition to trees and things like that, or or caves, even though we don't really have caves here. Um, and so that was our, us stretching our limits. And then this individual was like, Hey, you got to stretch your minds even more because I just found one behind a tow away sign. And so I think a lot of discoveries that myself and other community scientists make um in LA, aren't necessarily because we're extra talented scientists or extra connected with nature. It's because we're taking a chance and looking for bats in a place that nobody's ever looked before or looked as intensely. Those include a lot of communities that are also historically excluded [music begins] from environmental education and nature access. And I think everybody has a valuable role to play in learning about bats and eventually advocating for their conservation in LA.

Marcos Trinidad 7:08

After the break, how mutant mosquitoes are taking over LA, and how just maybe they've met their match. [music out] [break]

[sounds of crickets] I gotta say this is one of my favorite times of the year. It's because of all of the spring migrants comin' in. You catch me outside for most of the day, looking for birds and admiring all the beautiful splendor of California native flowers. Early evening is me time and that's when I'm in the garden weeding, planting and sharing space with all the wonderful backyard creatures stirring about. [sounds of birds] This is where I find so much peace. It's when I can calm all the chatter and decompress from the hustle of everyday life. I take a deep breath, I get in the zone. And that's when it happens. I feel it like a little pinch on my toe or right on my ankle. [mosquito buzzing sounds] I hear a slight buzz and I swat [slapping sound] around my ear. They're back- these little mosquitoes. And if you live in LA like me, you don't just have these everyday mosquitoes. We have these super tough mosquitoes to worry about, this non-native species called Aedes. Everything about these little bloodsuckers is scary. They can tolerate more extreme weather, very hearty. They can lay eggs and grow larva in the tiniest pools of standing water, like in a little bottle cap. They're like the T-1000 of mosquitoes. So I wanted to ask Miguel about whether maybe possibly his little bat friends might do me a solid and have a mosquito feast.

[to Miguel] Like are, are they eating certain insects or or how was, what do we know about them?

Miguel Ordeñana 9:08

Yeah, we know that they eat a variety of insects, nocturnal flying insects, um wasps, micro-wasps, moths, mosquitoes, and when I say that, that's when it gets people's attention and I start winning people over because everybody is annoyed by mosquitoes especially in LA when we have these uh non-native mosquitoes that are extra aggressive and

Marcos Trinidad 9:31

And extra tough.

Miguel Ordeñana 9:32

Yeah, tough to exterminate and so we have uh now even more reason to appreciate bats and tolerate them even if they are a slight inconvenience sometimes. And I've heard uh stories of one homeowner for instance that liked bats, didn't mind bats, um but she had them in a overhang over their, her front porch and they were um pooping a little bit too much for her her comfort. And so from that standpoint, they're kind of a nuisance. She's like, I don't want you to hurt the bats, but get rid of them, please, because, and have them go somewhere else. And then the bat biologists are like, Are you sure? Because they might not come back. And they have a lot of great impacts on the insect activity and like mosquitoes. She's like, oh, yeah, I'll be fine. So then a few months later, she goes and contacts this biologist. Can you reverse that somehow? Can you uh open up these crevices again, because I like to have my evening wine uh around sunset and now I'm just getting hammered by these mosquitoes [Marcos laughing] and it's intolerable. And uh

Marcos Trinidad 10:39

It's unacceptable when you can't have your evening wine in peace.

Miguel Ordeñana 10:43

[laughing] So yeah, once we kind of connect it to us personally, I think whether it's um being inconvenienced by mosquitoes, whether it's you want to keep our ecosystems healthy and in balance, um or just do the right thing and and allow animals to be here that have been here way longer than we have.

Marcos Trinidad 11:03

Yes! Like, of course, I want that. Because there's no discrimination there when they see some fresh skin. [laughs] So any any help I can get on that, and I'm I'm alI for. What can we do to help these bats like, you know, how we set up cookie and milks for Santa. We, you know, we want to make sure that he's coming down that chimney. How do we set up a cookie and milk for, for bats?

Miguel Ordeñana 11:29

I mean, a lot of people go immediately to bat boxes. And I mean, although I do agree with that as one method of supporting bats, and putting up where you can, sometimes they work. They're really picky about where they end up roosting. So sometimes they help, sometimes they don't. So I wouldn't end it at bat boxes. I would expand it to [music begins] the types of plants that we grow. Um just like a lot of animals um that are native to this area, a lot of the insects that they prey upon, that they specialize on, are native species. And if we grow native plants that accommodate those species of insects, then we're going to also be taking care of the predators that rely on those native insect species. Our nature gardens at the Natural History Museum, for instance, is a good example of that. We didn't have any habitat, um previous to 2013 in our in our natural history museum, and then we all of a sudden have three-and-a-half acres of garden. And we saw a response, and we had a bat detector there um in the nature gardens, and today, we've detected five species of bats. Not only bats that we know are everywhere, like the Mexican free-tailed bat, but also bats that are reliant on trees. And so, having a three-and-a-half acre garden kind of serve that purpose, sends a message, right. It says that you don't have to have a national forest to be able to support bats. Even those community gardens and neighborhood pocket parks can make a huge difference. And so that's one thing and don't use pesticide because that goes up the food web. Um and so if you're putting it on your plants, the insects are eating that. And also, bats are really way better pest control, way cheaper pest control than any other fumigation regime can offer.

Marcos Trinidad 13:22

When we come back, Miguel shares his dream for the future of bats. And we'll get outside and see if we can find some ourselves. [break]

So making sure that we're we're uh, increasing the the native plants, tree canopy, and tow away traffic signs, I think are going to be the key to the bat recovery.

Miguel Ordeñana 13:45

Yeah.

Marcos Trinidad 13:46

I have one question around the bat sign. [Miguel laughing] Will that help as well?

Miguel Ordeñana 13:51

Yeah, it'll get my attention at least and hopefully attract a lot of moths, so it'll benefit bats, for sure. Um and hopefully, what I would love is that we don't need a bat sign like we all, because of projects like ours and other other relatable, accessible projects, people will have more awareness of not only that bats are here, but how we can study them, [music begins] how we can support their conservation. Um and we can be at a football game at the LA Coliseum. And instead of me being the nerd with the bat detector at halftime listening for bats, there'll be a stadium full of 1000s of people at halftime that will be Okay, we know bats are here. Let's see what bats are out here tonight. Um because that awareness will be there. That comfort with bats being around us will be there. And that's the future that I would love for my children and my grandchildren.

Marcos Trinidad 14:48

I think what we should push for is, instead of having that kiss cam, [Miguel laughing] we have the bat cam. So they'll turn the camera to whatever bat is flying around the Coliseum.

Miguel Ordeñana 14:48

I love that.

Marcos Trinidad 15:03

All this bat talk has me wanting to go check out some bats.

Miguel Ordeñana 15:08

Let's go!

Marcos Trinidad 15:09

Let's do it man. [Miguel laughs]

Miguel and I left the Whittier Narrows Nature Center. We drove through the winding streets of South El Monte and Whittier neighborhoods right before sunset. [ambient street sounds and car door shutting] We parked our cars beside the San Gabriel River. We walked past the stretches of riverbank with vaqueros out training their horses, and set out to look for bats under this overpass beneath the 60 freeway. [freeway sounds]

We're here. It's like on the border of a freeway. This is a highway. People are driving as fast as they can to get to wherever they're going. And you got folks living life like, like if they're back at the rancho training their horses. We're right next to a a tree nursery that's under these huge Edison power lines. The sun is setting and the reflection off of the water is just so calming. You can hear the freeway, but it it has that effect, at least for me, that you would get at the ocean.

Miguel Ordeñana 16:23

Tweet, tweet tweet. They sound like birds but like they have this really like consistent cadence to it. [bat chirping]

Caroline Champlin 16:29

You heard something. You heard it. [a woman responds in background]

Marcos Trinidad 16:33

Right there! [bats chirping] It's circling in here. [a woman says, "It's so cool!" in background] It's a lot larger than I thought it would be. See, there he goes right here.

Miguel Ordeñana

Yeah, there's usually like a couple that start off and then like all a sudden, a bunch of them start flooding out.

Marcos Trinidad

Ohhh!

Miguel Ordeñana 16:51

There we go!

Marcos Trinidad

That’s so cool!

Caroline Champlin 17:00

[theme music] Human/Nature is hosted by Marcos Trinidad and produced by Carla Javier and me, Caroline Champlin. Kelly Prime is our story editor. Mixing and engineering by Parker McDaniels with help from Shawn Corey Campbell. Ex Mañana composed our music. Doris Anahi Muñoz is the music supervisor. Human/Nature is a production of LAist Studios. The marketing team of LAist Studios created our branding with art by Christine Tyler Hill. Special thanks to Taylor Coffman, Sabir Brara, Kristen Hayford, Kristen Muller, Andy Orozco, Michael Cosentino, Neha Shaida and Fiona Ng. Antonia Cereijido and Leo G are the executive producers for LAist Studios. Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford, who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. That's all for this episode of Human/Nature. We'll see you next week. [music out]