Today you’re hearing from Christina Kocer, the white-nose syndrome coordinator for our Northeast Region. Credit: USFWS
Halloween means zombies, witches, vampires, and goblins lurk in the shadows and around every corner. Toothy, carved pumpkins and images of bats silhouetted against a full moon abound.
I admit the idea of encountering a zombie does not sit well with me; however, bats are a different story. Despite their spooky image, bats are far from terrifying, and I can assure you, they really don’t want anything to do with your hair.
Bats get a bad rap. I recently watched a movie that depicted bats as swarming, voracious creatures with chameleon-like abilities to change colors and hide in plain sight, waiting to attack.
That is terrifying, right? But that is about as far from reality as you can get.
Here’s an exotic one for you. The Rodrigues flying fox (which has a wingspan of about 3 feet) is the only native mammal from the island of Rodrigues in the Mauritius Island belt near Madagascar. These endangered bats were brought into captivity in the late 1970s when their numbers were less than 100 on the island. Photo courtesy of Organization for Bat Conservation, credit to Steve Gettle. Read more at their site.
As much as I’d love to see a bat turn from black to purple to green, it just won’t happen. Instead, real bats are likely to use their natural color to just blend in and hide by tucking underneath tree bark or burying themselves in clumps of leaves. And as long as we are clearing the air, bats…
- will not fly into your hair;
- will not suck your blood;
- will not try to eat you alive; and
- will not chew through your siding, your shutters, or your attic vents.
Bats are not birds, they are not giant insects, and they are not flying rodents. They do not build nests. They will not breed like rabbits and rapidly infest your house. They are not blind. They are not flying, disease ridden vermin searching out unsuspecting humans to infect.
Well, if they aren’t going to attack me in my sleep, build nests in my hair, or try to eat my brains, what the heck are they, and what do they do? Bats are mammals — the only mammals capable of flight. They are covered in soft fur and give birth to live young (pups) which are nursed until they are old enough to venture out on their own.
A tri-colored bat showing signs of white-nose syndrome while hibernating in a Massachusetts cave. Credit: Jon Reichard
Even though some people think they look like flying mice, they are not closely related to rodents. The bones in their wings are the same bones you have in your own hand. Bats are very diverse, making up about one quarter of all mammals worldwide:
- They range in size from the world’s smallest mammal, the small, bumblebee-sized bumblebee bat to the large flying foxes, with their 6-foot wingspans.
- They are pollinators, fruit eaters, seed dispersers, and insect devourers.
- They can have big ears, small ears or pointy ears;
- Fancy wrinkly faces or a face that looks remarkably like fox’s;
- Small, pointed noses or noses that resemble a leaf; and they can have long tails or short tails.
And yes, some bats feed on blood. But don’t worry; even though vampire bats do exist, these very specialized creatures are smaller than your typical cell phone and aren’t the terrifying creatures you may be imagining. Vampire bats live in Central and South America and typically feed on the blood of livestock, and believe it or not, their feeding ritual goes largely unnoticed by their prey. Their saliva has even been used to develop medicines for stroke patients.
Closer to home, here in the Northeast, our native bats are small, and most weigh about the same as a few pennies.
The thousands of insects they eat each night save farmers millions of dollars on insect control and crop damage. That makes bats the most organic form of insect control you can get. Our local bats are agile fliers who are adept at navigating through thick forests in search of their insect prey. They readily devour the pests that eat our food crops and trees, and spread disease.
Those bats that seem to be swooping down to grab a chunk of your hair? Yep, those bats might just be going after insects too — the insects that are going after you.
Bats are long-lived species; some individuals have even been documented to have survived for over 30 years. Quite unlike rodents, most bats are only able to produce one to two pups each year (some species may have up to 4 pups).
Unfortunately, right now bats have something to fear themselves – white-nose syndrome (WNS). WNS is a rapidly spreading fungal disease that has resulted in the catastrophic decline of bats throughout eastern North America.
Over 5.7 million bats have already died, and because bats are long-lived and produce so few young, it will take many generations for populations to recover from this disease.
And, speaking of diseases, the claim that all bats are rabid is yet another fear perpetuated by popular media.
While it’s true that bats can carry rabies, less than 1 percent of wild bats are actually infected with the disease. Even so, don’t go picking up any bats you might find on the ground. That bat may be sick or injured, and it won’t be worth the mandatory rabies shots you’ll have to get if you try to handle it. Call your local wildlife biologist for help.
While there is no reason for us to fear these beneficial critters, I admit, it’s unnerving to have a bat flying circles in your living room. But, if that happens to you, gather your wits, remember why bats are good, and help the little guy escape safely by opening a window so the bat can fly out.
Despite what you may have seen on TV, the world is a better place for everyone with bats in it. 🙂