Nature Nearby: Batting a thousand

BY FRED SEITZ – Spring brings not only flowers, allergens and baseball bats, but also some small night fliers with unfortunate, unwarranted reputations as rabies carriers and bloodsuckers — our local bats. Although a small proportion of bats do, in fact, carry rabies, any warmblooded animal can carry rabies and bite another animal or human. Bats shouldn’t be unfairly singled out in this regard.

It should also be recognized that bats do not follow the Hollywood scripts that have them swooping down and biting folks on the neck. In order to get bitten, you’d have to pick one up (Think how scary that would be for an animal that only weighs a couple ounces and fits inside your hand.). Admittedly though, bats do have pretty sharp teeth, and their bites do hurt.

With regard to blood sucking, only three of the nearly 1200 species of bats worldwide are “bloodsucking vampires,” and these all live in Central and South America. By the way, even those faraway “bloodsuckers” drink blood mostly from cows. And even in their bloodsucking, bats are one of the few animals demonstrating altruism: If a vampire bat doesn’t get any blood, a more successful one will regurgitate part of its blood intake to feed the hungry one. They are also reported to be good, protective parents of their young.

Rest assured, however, that all bats in this area are insectivores.

Bats are usually harbingers of spring and the nemeses of many of our local evening insects. While bats are not a cure-all for the mosquito problem, they do take a chunk out of the local swarm Their biggest benefit to us is their propensity to eat moths and caterpillars that destroy our local crops, gardens and other plants.

Bats are our only flying mammals (Flying squirrels are cute, but they glide and don’t really fly.), emerging from their local residences (trees, rock ledges, underneath shingles) right after sundown while it’s still light enough to see them. They will continue flapping for hours then take a break,emerging again shortly before it begins to get light again. During their night flights, bats harvest hundreds of insects to keep their energy up for all that flapping and, later in the season, to fatten up for winter hibernation. Moms need enough food to provide sufficient energy for the feeding of their young, who are born in the early part of spring and are learning how to be independent bats right about now.

In the early evening, you are most likely to see either the beautiful Eastern red bat (Lasiurus borealis; a local tree dweller), whose red fur is somewhat visible in the waning light, or the slightly smaller little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus). A little later in the evening, you may glimpse the big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus; not that much bigger than the little brown bat). If you’re a late night person, you may see the Hoary bat (Lasiurus cinereus; a somewhat larger black bat). All four have suffered population losses due to habitat destruction, white-nose syndrome (a disease named for the white fungus that appears on the muzzle and other parts of hibernating bats; the disease has most severely affected the little brown bat, but has affected the others as well) and bad public relations (Hollywood movies perpetually casts bats in villainous roles).

Should any of these night fliers come close to you outside, they’re probably just coming by to snag mosquitoes that are buzzing near you or to consume moths flying around your porch light. They have no interest in your blood. If you do see a bat on the ground, it would be unwise to pick him up as he may be sick or be very frightened by that hand of yours, which is much larger than he is and is suddenly grasping at him.  

On rare occasions, bats can get into people’s houses and flap around. If this occurs in your house, wait a bit, let it settle on your sofa or a chair, then slowly cover it with a Tupperware bowl and slide a flat plate underneath the bowl.Take it outside and open the lid. The bat will do the rest.

If you like corn on the cob, fresh spring produce and your backyard flowers and plants, it’s hard to come by a better, cheaper and more entertaining exterminator than these little night fliers. Adding a bat house to the side of your house or garage is a nice, easy gesture to help the local bats in spring and summer. But frankly, many bat houses are never occupied. They may be happy in your local trees and possibly under your shingles or in the attic. Should they occupy your attic, the biggest threat is their droppings, or guano, which contain some nasty fungus. To evict them from your attic, watch to see where they exit at night and screen that opening before they return.  

Remember: A bat in the yard makes the gardening less hard even though guano happens.