The Wild Truth
By Winslow Umberger
Things may go bump in the night, but it’s a sure bet it’s not a bat. They don’t bump into things—or people, for that matter. They actually see quite well and use echolocation to guide them in flight. And they certainly won’t fly into your hair. “If that were true,” says Katherine Caldwell, a wildlife diversity biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, “I’d be wearing my hair teased high to make field research easier.”
Caldwell spends summer evenings trying to catch the very bats most want to avoid. In order to study population changes in the 12 to 13 species that live in Western North Carolina, Caldwell and her team need to capture and tag them. This is not an easy task because bats don’t want to touch humans. It is ironic then that Caldwell fields calls from folks frightened by bat encounters. “Bats have been given a raw deal because people associate them with vampire bats,” says Caldwell. “Of the 1,300 species of bats in the world, only three are vampire bats and they are only found in Central and South America. Vampire bats do not attack humans. They get their teaspoon-sized meals from animals, largely livestock. They actually help humans: the blood-thinning enzyme found in vampire bat saliva has proved beneficial in treating stroke victims. People also believe every bat has rabies but, in reality, the incidence is quite low.”
Bats can be exceedingly helpful. They provide a great service to our ecosystem by keeping bothersome insects at bay. “A bat will often eat its weight in insects each night, which is astonishing if one thinks about eating his/her weight in food,” says Caldwell. “In our area, you will commonly see big brown bats as well as eastern red bats and Mexican free-tailed bats eating bugs in mid-flight around dusk and just before dawn.”
When not feasting, bats are roosting and are more often asleep than not. The little brown bat sleeps 19.9 hours per day, for instance. Bats have different roosting preferences with some resting out in the open on a limb, some roosting under loose bark or in cracks or crevices on a dead tree and others literally hanging in caves.
People become concerned when bats decide to take up residence on their property. “While that is worrisome—as few want bats in their homes—we recommend you not evict them from May 1 (when babies are born) to August 1 (when they are fully able to fly),” says Caldwell. “After August 1, you can install a device that allows bats to fly out at dusk but not back in.” (For more information on wildlife removal, visit NCWildlife.org.)
Rather than fearing them, welcome these important pollinators and natural pest control “agents” into your yard by installing a bat box. Bats often return to the same locations each year and, if those structures are torn down or blocked off, they have to spend valuable time and energy looking for a new roosting site. The boxes need to be mounted at least 12 feet high—20 feet is best—with morning sunshine and near a water source, if possible. Bat Conservation International (BatCon.org) is an excellent resource on the topic. If you need someone to install the bat box, a tree removal service company may be willing to do it for a fee.
As with most things, fear ends where understanding begins, enabling one to enjoy unfurled wings in swooping flight—a bewitching “ballet” on a moonlit night.
Winslow Umberger is head of outreach for Appalachian Wild, a nonprofit whose mission is to help injured and orphaned wildlife of WNC as well as support the area’s wildlife rehabilitators. To learn more, visit AppalachianWild.org.