I love bats.
Most people probably think that I just missed the last train to crazy-town but it’s the truth. I love bats.
I still remember the first time I saw a bat. I must have been about seven years old, it was dusk in the middle of the summer and my parents were wrapping up a day of yard work. If I had noticed the bats at all I probably would have mistaken them for birds, but my Dad pointed them out and told me they were bats. At first I was a bit creeped out knowing real live bats hung out in the safety of my backyard, because bats were well associated in my brain with Dracula, Halloween, and abandoned belfries. (Did I even know what a belfry was at seven?)
Later, my brother invented a game of throwing a softball up into the air to watch the bats dive at it. I don’t remember if I had already learned about echolocation or if that came later, but I whenever I teach my students about echo location the same image comes into my head: A baseball and a bat, one arching up and curving back down in a steady, predictable pattern, the other swooping reeling, and changing direction at a breakneck pace, elegant contrasts profiled against the sky and the familiar trees of our backyard.
At some point I learned that the bats were diving at the softball because they thought it was a flying insect, their source of food. Looking back I’m sure that if a bat had ever collided with the softball it would have died, and I’m equally sure I would have felt horrible as they both dropped out of the sky, but they never did. The bat would always realize, often times at the last second, that the missile was way too big to be even the most succulent moth and swoop away. It was a long time before I realized that this game must have been positively infuriating from the bat’s point of view.
As incredible as this aerial display was, I didn’t really fall in love with bats until I moved to New Hampshire. I spent a summer living in the attic of a cabin in Fraconia Notch State Park, and early, early in the morning I would hear incessant squeaking coming from a corner of the ceiling. I assumed it was one of the mice I was in a constant state of battle with that summer. One evening as I was getting ready to go to bed, from the same corner I saw a bat drop out of the crack where the ceiling met the log wall. I stood frozen in the middle of that room and I could hear the fluttering sound of its wings as it flew around the room for nearly half a minute. Even in the confines of that tiny room it was an agile flyer, swooping around me, the furniture, and the walls without crashing into any of them.
While I was startled by this first appearance I didn’t really mind it. Maybe I truly did miss the last train to crazy-town, but a bat seemed like short change to the plastic-chewing, food-seeking, hantavirus-carrying, no-kill-trap eluding rodents that I was currently at war with. Besides, if I couldn’t even rig a trap for a mouse, successfully evicting a bat was way out of my league.
That’s when I started doing more research. Quite a few of the people I told about the bat immediately raised the concern of bats carrying rabies. As it turns out, according to the CDC, less than six percent of bats that are captured and tested carry rabies. That figure doesn’t even take into account all of the bats that are happily zipping around like tiny furry fighter pilots. There is a high percentage of human rabies cases that are caused from bats, but in many cases the patient did not seek medical attention for a trivial little bat bite. What’s more, in the majority of these cases the person was bitten while trying to remove the bat. I made a mental note to go to the doctor if I got bitten, or saw evidence that the bat was diseased and stopped worrying about it.
I also was surprised to hear people say that bats made a habit of flying into people’s hair. My own observations of their ability to navigate contradicted the idea and many sources dismissed it. I hardly pay any attention to my hair anyways, and a bat stylist might have been an improvement.
But I did learn something that worried me. Biologists were concerned by something called “White Nose Syndrome.” It had started with bats in New York State, and it was disrupting the bats during their winter hibernation causing them to be spotted flying around and eating snow. It was killing enormous numbers of bats, and other than a few vague references to a fungus, no one seemed to understand what was causing the bats to die. And no one knew what to do about it.
I won’t say we always got along perfectly during my summer of the bats. For one thing, their habit of squeaking noisily in the ceiling at five in the morning got old fast. I also remember waking up one night to realize that a bat was noisily rustling around on top of a plastic bag that had one of my knitting projects in it. (I vaguely remember muttering “You can share my room, but stay out of my yarn!”)
But more often than not I was delighted when they (literally) dropped in. I vividly remember watching one crawl around upside down using the hook-like thumb on it’s wing. I was surprised, having been told that bats need to drop from a perch to be able to fly, to see a bat crawl around on the floor in the corner of the room and then effortlessly flutter back up into flight. Besides, having a bat for a roommate earned me at least a few bragging rights.
My summer in New Hampshire eventually ended. I moved back to civilization away. While I didn’t start liking bats any less, I certainly didn’t think about them as much. I still heard snippets about White Nose Syndrome here and there, and it still worried me, but I was too busy with my non-bat life to really stay in the loop.
About a week ago a bomb was dropped on me. I got an email saying that Icebox Cave in Cuyahoga Valley National Park was being closed due to concerns over White Nose Syndrome. A confirmed case of White Nose Syndrome was found nearby in one of the Summit County Metroparks. I hadn’t even noticed that another case of White Nose Syndrome was confirmed in Ohio nearly a year ago. Even worse a case of White Nose Syndrome was confirmed not far from my cabin in New Hampshire the same year that I was there. The year afterwards bat populations all over the state plummeted.
Even though I’m thousands of miles away in California now it’s struck a nerve. Those are my bats, in my favorite places, the ones that I used to play “dive at the softball,” with and yelled at to keep out of my stuff. I want to do something about it this time around.
Although we have learned more about it, we still haven’t figured out how to stop White Nose Syndrome from killing bats. It’s caused by a cold loving fungus that probably originated in Europe. When the bats hibernate for the winter, particularly in caves and mine shafts, the fungus grows around their nose, causes lesions on their skin, and disrupts their hibernation causing them to waste precious energy stores flying around when there isn’t a food source available. White Nose Syndrome has devastated the affected bats, killing anywhere from 70 to 100 percent of their original populations.
Many efforts to protect bats have been focused on preventing people from spreading the fungus. Countless parks and preserves have closed caves and mines to prevent the spores from being introduced to places where bats are known to hibernate. The Fish and Wildlife Service is encouraging cavers to decontaminate their gear before entering caves. Another way to help bats is by protecting their healthy populations. Avoid disturbing them when they are hibernating and protect the forests and wetland areas where they live and hunt. Hang bat houses to provide a place for them to live. Avoid using pesticides that kill the insects that they depend on for food.
Finally, even if you can’t welcome a bat into your house, at least welcome them into your heart. As insect eaters and pollinators they play an important part in agriculture and our own food chain, not to mention mosquito control at your next barbecue. They are truly fascinating critters that are often unnoticed or feared for all the wrong reasons. They could use a little more love.
You can find more information about bats and White Nose Syndrome from these wonderful places:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Bat Conservation International
National Speleological Society
~Robin (with a nod to XKCD and Hyperbole and a Half)