Francesco Alonso grew up in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula where forests are plentiful.
So it was natural that he gravitated toward the outdoors … to scouting and camping.
Now the 17-year-old member of Kearny Boy Scouts Troop 2 is again focused on the environment, this time, though, to provide shelter for bats in the meadows.
With some helping hands to design and build these “bat boxes” in the marshes in back of the Gunnell Oval municipal recreational complex, he will earn the coveted Eagle badge – the highest accolade awarded in scouting.
“I’ll be setting a good example for my community,” Alonso explained. And, he noted, it’s a function of his “scout oath – on my honor, to do my best, to help in any way.”
But there’s another very practical – and personal – explanation for the scout’s mission: “In the summer, I noticed that my baby sister who was a newborn was getting a lot of ankle bites from mosquitos.” That’s when he set his sights on befriending bats.
And he can personally vouch for the fact that they are a definite local presence. “I saw one in the back yard of my house on Stewart Ave. before sunrise,” the scout said. “You can find them in hollowed-out trees, especially in the meadow areas.”
The meadows are a good bat habitat, Alonso said, because they offer sunlight and water and the boxes provide a secure shelter where “they won’t be bothered – it’s the perfect place.”
In his research for the project, Alonso said he discovered that, “One brown bat [common to this area] can eat up to 1,500 mosquitos per night.” So, the more bats accommodated, he reasoned, the less chances his sister will be eaten up by those pesky creatures.
At the same time, his project can also prove to be a big boon for the depopulated bat population in the north meadows region, according to area bat experts.
Brian Aberback, spokesman for the N.J. Sports & Exposition Authority, which has jurisdiction over the meadows district, said: “Due to habitat loss, there’s a definite need for bat boxes in the meadows and we’re thrilled to hear Francesco is investing time in this project.”
Echoing that assessment were MacKenzie Hall, a wildlife biologist with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, and Joe D’Angeli, director of conservation and education for the Wildlife Nature Center in Garfield.
“Little brown bats,” said Hall, “until about 10 years ago were common across the continent,” roosting in backyards, residential buildings and elsewhere. But, beginning in 2009, she said, a scourge known as the white nose fungus “nearly wiped out the population.”
“We lost 99% of them in New Jersey and the trend continues in almost 30 states and in five Canadian provinces,” Hall said, while the so-called “big brown bat” – something of a misnomer since those bats are only, typically, 4 inches long or about twice as big as the small brown bat – are “not as vulnerable” to the fungus. They are commonly found in the Jersey meadowlands, she said.
D’Alberti agreed that “a lot of New Jersey bats took a hit in 2006 and 2007” from the fungus “and the disease is still spreading.”
Bats typically consume “half their body weight” and feed on mosquitos and other flying bugs that can be harmful to plants, Hall said. Their feeding habits “really does make a difference.”
In the outdoors, bats can be found “in the hollows of dying or dead trees or they can crawl under loose sheets of the bark,” said Hall. But with so much redevelopment activity supplanting these natural habitats, bats more and more “rely on man-made” shelters, Hall noted, “and a lot of service groups and homeowners, by building bat boxes in back yards and open spaces, are contributing to that effort.”
D’Alberti, who also sits on the Ridgefield Park Environmental Commission, concurred. “We never got as many calls from scouts and environmental groups as now,” he said, volunteering to help provide bat boxes which, he said, “will certainly give the bats a proper boost and safe haven as their numbers come back.”
Kearny’s Alonso has consulted with two naturalists on the NJSEA staff on the best method of constructing the boxes, Aberback said.
According to the scout, the plywood “single-chambered box” recommended would have the following dimensions: 1.5 inches long, 7 to 8 inches wide and 1 foot tall, with an opening at the bottom through which the bats would crawl. Each would be nailed into a tree.
Alonso enlisted the help of fellow scouts Razmig Shalian and Morgan Iachetta, along with friends Jasmine Sciortino and Alex Ramirez and his brother Billy to construct 15 such boxes over two Sundays and attach them to trees. With them in place, he plans to do random checks to see whether the “houses” have attracted occupants.
In the meantime, Alonso – who rows crew for Kearny High – is living the scout oath by performing community service by serving on a rotation for the Salvation Army of Greater Kearny as a holiday bell ringer/collector outside the North Arlington Super Foodtown.