By Sally Griffin
Bats are blind flying mice that attack you, get tangled in your hair, suck your blood, and give you rabies. So, they must be crazy. Right? Not so fast! There are a number of misconceptions about bats that I want to clear up.
First, bats are not related to mice. In fact, they are probably more closely related to us than to rodents. According to the Living Webster Dictionary, bats are one of a group of mammals of the order Chiroptera possessing a pair of leathery wings which extend between the fore and the posterior limbs. The former are specially modified for flying, while the bones of the forefeet are extremely elongated. Chiroptera translates into “hand-wing,” which seems pretty accurate. Bats are the only mammals that can fly. They are also one of the most varied species.
Bats are not blind. All bats can see and some, even, have good eyesight. Many types of bats have small eyes and use echolocation to navigate, but this doesn’t mean they are blind. Echolocation or biological sonar is a very refined system, even more so than radar. Bats can detect a single strand of human hair and will usually avoid it. Bats don’t attack people and get tangled in their hair. Bats may fly toward you if they are trying to get away from something or to eat a bug that you may not have noticed above your head. Usually, this is a mosquito. Mosquitos like to dive-bomb people from above. Plus, bats don’t build nests, so your hair would not be of interest to them unless it is harboring a large number of mosquitos or moths. So, then, they would just be helping you with your problem.
There is only one species of bat that likes to drink blood: Vampire bats. They live in Mexico, Central and South America and prefer the blood of cows or other livestock to human blood. In fact, most bats are afraid of us and avoid us as much as they can. Most bats are insect eaters. The more than 1,300 types of bats make up one-fourth of all mammal species. And they can be very different in size. The Bumblebee Bat, the smallest of the species, has a wingspan of six inches. In contrast, the largest bat, the Malayan Flying Fox, has a wingspan of six feet. Thank goodness, these bats don’t have vampire proclivities.
Less than one percent of bats have rabies. Like all mammals, bats can get rabies. When they do get rabies, they are very sick and usually die without contact with humans. However, if you see a bat on the ground or during the daytime, it might be sick. You should not try to handle it, keep children and pets away and call for help. If you feel that you must remove the bat before animal control or wildlife technicians get there, only do so while wearing a long-sleeved jacket and heavy gloves.
Bats are not crazy. They, however, do almost everything upside down, except go to the bathroom (which would be really crazy). They are very sociable and live in large groups called colonies. They have only one baby a year. Bat babies often weigh almost one-fourth as much as their mom when they are born. (Can you imagine a human mom birthing a 30-pound baby?) Bat flight may appear crazy because they often fly in a figure-eight pattern, at up to 50 mph, while they hunt down the 2,000 to 6,000 insects that they eat every night. They do their hunting at night for the simple reason that is when there are the most insects, like mosquitos.
Bats’ eating preferences make them very beneficial to have in our backyards. They also help farmers by consuming agricultural pests. A 2009 Journal of Medical Entomology study compared mosquito populations in areas with bats to areas without bats. After two months, the one with bats had a 32 percent reduction in mosquitoes compared to area without bats. In fact, most environmentalists will tell you that bats are the most environmentally friendly and least risky way to combat mosquitoes. Chemicals and pesticides carry heavy risks for both humans and other wildlife. Yet, the world is a dangerous place for bats. Although they provide important environmental activities, they are declining world-wide, largely due to human activity. That is why many environmentalists and others are recommending people install bat houses.
There are several reasons for attracting bats to your backyard. First, of course, is pest control. Bats can also help by providing guano for fertilizer. Guano is the polite name for bat excrement, which, by the way can be used for fertilizing backyard plants and flowers. Guano is packed with nitrogen and phosphorous. Lastly, bats’ nightly display of aerial acrobatics can be an amazing thing to watch from your back deck.
According to Bat Conservation International, Inc. ( http://www.batcon.org ), here are some tips to get you started:
• Bats prefer to roost on buildings or other large wooden or concrete structures. But they may roost on poles. They don’t particularly like trees, unless they are dead. Bat houses should get at least six hours of sun each day. The south or east side of a house or barn is ideal. Interior temperatures should be as warm and as stable as possible.
• Best places for bat houses are 20 to 30 feet from trees and 12 to 20 feet above ground or the tallest vegetation. Locations near fairly large water sources, preferably within a quarter mile or less, are the most successful in attracting bats.
• If you have a cat, keep her inside at night, especially during the summer months when bat mothers are taking care of their young. Cat attacks are one of the most common causes of bat casualties.
• To provide them with a varied diet of insects, plant night-blooming plants, flowering annuals and perennials, and fragrant herbs and shrubs.
• Tall designs like multi-chambered nurseries and rocket-style houses perform best in attracting bats. But it may take two years for bats to find your bat house. Occupancy may only be 50 percent in urban and suburban areas.
• Put a shallow tray under the bat house to collect the guano. Don’t use a bucket or deep container, because baby bats can fall from the bat house and get trapped.
• Many Colorado bats hibernate elsewhere during the winter, so you need to make sure that non-bat residents, like wasps, don’t take up residence while they are gone.
I don’t know where the slang use of “batty” as “insane” or “odd” came from. Bats are very useful wildlife and there are many benefits to keeping them around. So, the next time someone calls you “batty,” be sure to thank him.