Recently I went for a hike in the nature preserve near my Darien, Connecticut apartment. I thought I had more time before sunset, however, dusk was quickly upon me, and I still had a ways to go before I returned to my car.
Mostly I was concerned about tripping over roots and rocks along the hiking path, until I saw a bat swooping. Immediately I became fearful, worrying that it might attack me or inadvertently get caught in my hair, a myth perpetuated by my parents when I was a child and bats flew overhead while we were night swimming.
I was convinced it was following me, so I called my best friend, who happens to live in North Carolina, knowing full well she couldn’t “save” me. But it felt comforting to be on the phone with someone as I made my way out of the preserve.
Several days later, I was at a birthday party well after dusk in the next town over. As the guests mingled outside by candlelight, I noticed four or five bats circling above. How beautiful they look and how delightful it is to see wildlife, I thought to myself — and what a completely different reaction than when I was alone in the woods with a bat seemingly following me.
I took both of these experiences as a sign I need to learn more about bats. So, I visited the U.S.-based Bat Conservation International’s (BCI) extensive website, and I’m so glad I did.
After pouring through facts and myths about bats, I realize our society is guilty of bat shaming—making these spectacular creatures out to be worthless, useless and disgusting just because they are bats.
Here is some information from the BCI website that dispels the biggest myths about bats:
Blind as a bat
Bats not only see as well as just about any other mammal, but most bats also use a unique biological sonar system called echolocation, which lets them navigate and hunt fast-flying insects in total darkness. Basically, the bat emits beep-like sounds into its path, then collects and analyzes the echoes that come bouncing back. Using sound alone, bats can see everything but color and detect obstacles as fine as a human hair.
Bats are flying mice
Nope. Bats are mammals but not the rodent kind of mammal. In fact, they are more closely related to humans than to rats and mice.
Bats get tangled in your hair
This was a common myth a few decades ago, but bats are much too smart and agile for that. Plus bats do not attack people. Bats are quite timid; however, they will defend themselves. The biggest health risk that people face from bats is their own fearful reaction to them. More people injure themselves in their frenzied escapes away from bats that are swooping for insects than are ever harmed by them.
Bats are blood suckers
Well, there really are three vampire bat species (out of more than 1,300 bat species) that feed on blood; only one targets mammals. All vampire bats are limited to Latin America. Oh, and they don’t suck blood, they lap it like kittens with milk.
All bats are rabid
Bats, like other mammals, can be infected with the rabies virus and some of them are. But the vast majority of bats are not infected. However, a bat that can be easily approached by humans is likely to be sick and may bite if handled. If you do not touch or handle a bat or any other wild animal there is little chance of getting bit.
I pride myself on being a wildlife advocate and lover, so needless to say I was upset that I was more familiar with these myths about bats than the cool facts about how special they are. They are, for example, important pollinators and seed dispersers. Many of our everyday products, such as tequila, wild bananas, balsa wood, and allspice (to name a few) come from bat pollinator-dependent plants.
And then there are these tidbits provided by National Geographic:
●The little brown bat from North America can gulp more than 1,200 mosquitoes in one hour. So without bats around, you might have a lot more bug bites.
● Bats have special cells in their ears that make them extremely sensitive to noise. The hearing ability of some bats is so strong they can detect the sound of a beetle walking on a leaf.
● Bats have thumbs. Shaped like hooks, the thumbs stick out from the top edge of a bat’s wings. The animals use their thumbs for clinging to trees and eating.
● Bats hang out in groups called colonies. In the summer, Bracken Cave in New Braunfels, Texas, is home to a colony of more than 20 million free-tailed bats. And during warmer months one bridge in Austin, Texas, is a hangout spot for 1.5 million free-tailed bats.
Sadly, my research revealed that in North America, more than 5.7 million of bats have been killed by White-nose Syndrome (WNS), a wildlife disease that continues its spread across the continent. Caused by a cold-loving fungus called Pseudogymnoascus destructans, WNS attacks hibernating bats, causing mortality rates that approach 100 percent at some sites, according to Bat Conservation International. The disease was first spotted in a cave in upstate New York in February 2006 and has since expanded across the eastern half of the U.S. and Canada. Until the arrival of WNS, two endangered U.S. species, the Indiana myotis and gray myotis, were showing promising signs of recovery. And scientists predict that the once common little brown bat, will be reduced to just 1% of its pre-WNS population numbers by 2030.
The dramatic growth of wind energy throughout much of the world is also taking a huge toll on bats.
How to help
Now that I understand how worthy bats are, I’d be remiss not to pass on information on how to protect them. Since bats need a warm, safe place to sleep during the day, building or buying a bat box and mounting it on a building or a pole in your yard is one simple way to do something nice for bats. BCI’s website is a great place to start.
You can also visit a bat viewing site. Texas is home to the greatest number of bat species in the U.S. BCI has partnered with Texas Parks and Wildlife to create this useful guide for viewing some of the amazing bats who call Texas home. Bracken is a BCI-owned site and visitation to Bracken Cave for BCI members can be arranged.
It’s not easy to be a bat in our society, so I’m happy to do my part to make their lives easier.