DARIEN — Chuck Oldham is building a bat cave in Darien, but not the damp underground kind you see in movies.
This one — made of wood slats and glue mounted atop a tall pole — looks more like an oversized letter box. He’s also built a smaller version of the bat box and nesting boxes for screech and barn owls. More boxes are in the planning to be installed at various city locations.
Oldham hopes the nest boxes will mean a few less pests and a few more tourists for Darien.
"We want people to know Darien is a great place to come and see wildlife," Oldham said. "This is a low-budget environmental project that can enhance the area’s appeal."
It’s something Frank Feild, executive director for the Downtown Development Authority, has been wanting for a while. Right now the city supports a large population of Mexican
freetail bats at marshes near the Darien bridge. The bats have been known to infest nearby homes by the hundreds.
"You can’t just kill them off. Every one of them eats 1,000 mosquitoes a night," Feild said. "We want to keep the bats in the downtown area, but we don’t want them in people’s houses."
Oldham said his boxes will provide better habitat than houses and will lure bats away from roosts where they are a nuisance.
Feild believes nest boxes could turn the city’s wildlife into a draw for tourists like that experienced in Austin, Texas.
Years ago Austin residents had wanted to exterminate a colony of freetail bats that had infested a major bridge there. City leaders were persuaded to protect the colony instead. Now visitors come to the bridge every evening to watch as a swarm of bats leave at dusk to hunt, Feild said.
"The Austin convention and visitors bureau say it’s their No. 1 tourist attraction," he said. "There are dinner cruises timed to arrive at the bridge just as the bats leave."
Restaurants even developed a local drink — the batini — in honor of the bats.
Darien received grant money to fund nest box projects nearly a year ago, but until Oldham came along, there was no one to build the boxes, Feild said. Oldham had worked as an educator for the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences and has been an ecology enthusiast ever since.
Oldham and Feild’s nest box plans didn’t stop at bats. Both want tourists to also think of Darien as a place to view owls. The city already attracts Atlanta visitors who come to Darien for bird-watching.
Oldham added a screech owl nest box and a barn owl nest box to his building projects.
Two of the boxes, along with interpretive signs, were installed in trees at a picnic area near Fort King George where people had heard owls at night. Oldham is building a second set of boxes and interpretive signs for the Ashantilly Center.
One of Oldham’s owl boxes has been shifted to meet the needs of some displaced owls.
Darien resident Brian Feeney recently had to cut down a pair of old and diseased water oaks in his yard. He was afraid a family of barn owls that had been nesting there were gone for good.
"I consider them my birds. They’ve been here for 20 years and I’ve protected them," Feeney said. He watched helplessly as the owls returned day after day, only to fly off.
Owl families may nest in the same spot for 100 years, with younger owls taking over nests after parents die, Oldham said. But habitat has been disappearing.
To help the homeless owls, Oldham installed a barn owl box in a tree on city right of way. Four weeks ago, Feeney saw the female sitting in the nest box.
"I think she was upset I cut down the tree. But, she came back, so I’m happy," he said.
Judging by Feeney, owls do seem to hold a lot of magnetism for people.
"These owls are 18 inches tall with a 4-foot wingspan. They look really big in the air," he said.
He continues to worry about the owls, watching for signs of nesting and wondering if there’s too much commotion from people.
"As long as people won’t be showing up and scaring her during daylight hours, I think we’ll be fine," he said. "We believe she’s accepting the box."
So far Feeney is one person in Darien sold on nest boxes.
"I’d like to get another one," he said, adding his oak trees had held several nesting owl families. He needs something else first, though, by way of a donation.
"A nice long utility pole, where I could get them up off the ground," he said. "That way I could put them in a heavy duty nest box closer to the house, where they’d feel more protected."