By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

It would be unfair -- and trite -- to say Curtis Schmidt has bats in the belfry, but there's no doubt he's had bats on the brain for several years now.

Of course, he's one of the co-authors of the new book, "Bats of Kansas." He's joined by Dale Sparks, now of Cincinnati.

Both Schmidt and Sparks were students of the late Jerry Choate, the book's remaining author.

In fact, the book is dedicated to Choate, the former director of Sternberg Museum of Natural History, who died while collaborating on the book.

Published by the Indiana State University Center for North American Bat Research and Conservation, it is the fifth in a series of state books on bats.

Bats are an often misunderstood and much-maligned animal.

Bats also are struggling right now, what with the advancing status of white-nose syndrome, a disease that is decimating bat colonies in several states.

So far, the fungus has not been found in Kansas, but Schmidt is fearful that won't last.

Although Schmidt long has been an adjunct curator of herpetology at Sternberg, just last week he started working there as manager of zoological collections. In that role, he will care for bird and mammal collections, frequently accessed by researchers.

In many cases, there's still a lot to learn about bats in Kansas.

Much of what is known is a result of studies by Sparks and a survey of mammals conducted by Schmidt and Choate.

There are, in fact, only 16 species of bats in Kansas.

"Some of them are regional," he said, citing bats that primarily frequent the Red Hills area of southern Kansas. "Big brown bats are what most people see."

The red hills primarily are located in Clark, Comanche and Barber counties.

They're the most frequently seen because "of its affinity for man-made structures," Schmidt said.

They also forage for insects around lights.

Kansas is home to both migratory bats and those that hibernate during the winter.

"The ones that hibernate are the ones that inhabit caves and old buildings," Schmidt said.

And yes, he said caves.

There are a number of smaller caves in the Red Hills region, but some bats hibernate in an area north of Hays, an area that lacks caves.

That would be the northern myotis.

"The thing is we don't know where in the world they hibernate in Kansas," Schmidt said.

He's caught them north of Hays and has found colonies in trees. But he's not yet found where they hibernate, although there's speculation it might be in the cracks and crevices of the limestone outcroppings along the Saline River.

There's one bat believed to be extirpated from Kansas, the little brown myotis.

"We suspect it's not in the state anymore," Schmidt said.

But, there's not a lot of research into bats in Kansas, other than in the Red Hills.

"The migrating species don't get a lot of attention," he said. "The tree roosting species don't get a lot of attention."

That might change as the threat of white-nose syndrome increases.

One message Schmidt wants to get out is there's nothing to fear from bats.

"People fear that which they do not understand," he said. "They don't like bats, they don't like spiders and they don't like snakes."

Fewer than 1 percent of the bat population suffers from rabies, and he even went so far as to bust the myth that any bat found out in the daylight must be sick.

"Often, they get so hot they look for a cooler spot," Schmidt said. "Obviously, they don't attack people so the risk of contracting rabies, unless you pick it up, is not going to happen. Bats will avoid people at all cost."

Instead, bats are a benefit, dining most frequently on moths and beetles -- the bane of farming.

"They eat a lot of crop pests," he said.

*  "Bats of Kansas" is now available at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History Gift Shop.

The 60-page book costs $10.