When you think about bats, what do you think? Flying rodents? Dracula’s familiars? Creepy creatures with a lust for blood? Think again.
Bats are neither rodents, nor do many of them drink blood. Except for a couple of nectar-eating bats in the desert southwest, all bats are in the United States are insectivores. Find mosquitoes macabre? Bats have your back. Moths flinging themselves against your screen door trying to reach an elusive “flame”? Bats are ready to snap those critters up.
Even in tropical rainforests, outside the U.S., where the greatest diversity of bats live, including carnivorous bats, fruit-eating bats, nectar-eating bats, fish-eating bats, frog-eating bats, and (yes) vampire bats, the vast majority of bats eat insects.
In a single night, one pregnant or lactating female bat can consume its full body weight in insects. That translates to thousands of mosquitoes and other flying insects. Multiply this number by the number of bats in a colony – ranging from a few to several hundred – and that’s thousands of less mosquito bites you have to endure.
What’s more, bats help farmers by eating insects that feed on crops, so farmers can use far less pesticides: not only do we get healthier food, but billions of dollars per year normally spent on pesticides are saved with bats’ help.
To learn a bit more about these tiny mammals with a big impact on our world, we contacted an expert who has studied and worked intimately with bats for over 30 years.
Anita Buck, Cincinnati’s own “Bat Woman”
At age 11, Anita Buck saw a National Geographic special on television that showed footage in slow motion of bats catching insects. Of bats’ predation on insects, Buck says. “It looks like ballet.” The bats “bat [the insects] with their wings and catch them in their tail membrane, which they hold to make a sort of basket, eating their prey mid-flight.” The bat “dance” captured not only insects but Ms. Buck’s interest as well; she’s been hooked on these marvelous mammals ever since her initial glimpse of them on film.
From 1984-1991, Anita worked at the Natural History Museum in Cincinnati, where she learned about bats by reading and by taking on-the-job calls about “bats in the wrong place at the wrong time.” She became a licensed bat rehabilitator and remains a bat educator. Since 1991 until very recently, Anita Buck rescued and rehabilitated injured bats and instructed people how to safely encourage bats to fly out of human living spaces. Ms. Buck nursed injured bats back to heath and released them into the wild or, if they were permanently injured, delivered them to organizations that educate people about bats. Now living and working as a freelance writer and editor in Cincinnati, Ms. Buck still occasionally responds to “bat calls” and part of her life’s mission is to “de-mystify bats” for humans who tend to view them with trepidation. She happily shared the following brief introduction to Ohio’s bats with us.
Bats belong to their own order, Chiroptera, also known as hand-wing mammals. The Chiroptera order contains somewhere between 950-1100 species, making bats the second most diverse group of mammals in the world (rodents are first). Only thirteen species of bats have been recorded in Ohio. Most commonly encountered species include little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus) and big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus). Northern Ohio tends to have more little brown bats than southern Ohio, but big brown bats are common statewide. The normal lifespan of a bat in the wild, if they make it through their first winter (and most do not), can range from six to eight and, sometimes, 10 years. Bats who were injured, rehabilitated and kept in captivity for educational purposes can live much longer, up to 20-25 years.
Where Bats Live
Typically, bats gather in two types of sites, winter hibernation sites and summer roosting sites. Historically, bats lived in forests in the summer and caves in the winter, and many bats still do. But, as a result of deforestation, some bats have come to use buildings and bridges for shelter in the past 200-300 years. They hang behind shutters or fascia boards and can enter buildings by using existing openings and cracks as small as 3/8 inch. They roost between exterior walls and in attics, moving up and down within walls to seek warmth or coolness, whichever they need at the time. Bats who live in buildings come and go from the outside at night and usually remain undetected by humans.
Bats are mammals that are actually very small; even big brown bats, Ohio’s second biggest species, typically only weigh about one half to less than three quarters of an ounce, or 14-19 grams, with females being larger. However, the wingspans of Big Brown Bats are about 13 inches, making them “all wings,” says Buck.
Some species of bats migrate, but others hibernate. In Ohio, species that hibernate don’t feed from about October through March or April, when they leave their hibernating sites. Since they are not feeding during hibernation, bats must feed enough over late summer months to be about a quarter more than their usual body weight, as they need a certain amount of fat to survive the fall and winter. For example, before hibernating, a 21 gram bat will feed until it reaches about 28 grams. When it begins to emerge from hibernation, that same bat might weigh as little as 14 grams.
Bats wake and mate several times during hibernation. They give birth once a year in the summer, usually to one or two pups. Babies are usually born in June and, sometimes, even in early July. They have a rapid rate of growth. Bat pups feed exclusively on their mother’s milk for three and a half to four weeks until they are able to fly and begin to learn to hunt. Still, it can take six to nine weeks for mothers to completely wean their babies, and the pups need assistance until then. As Ms. Buck explains, “All bats instinctively echolocate, but it’s a skill that has to be learned, like reading. Just knowing the alphabet doesn’t mean you can read. Baby bats have to learn to ‘read’ the echoes of their calls,” to navigate their surroundings and hunt insects.
Bats feed at dusk – one or two hours after sunset – and again before sunrise. Bats are not blind but have eyes like ours which means that on moonless or starless nights, they cannot see. Instead, bats have evolved, and rely on a fascinating system of built-in sonar, echolocation, to hunt and navigate. During echolocation, bats emit sounds and analyze their echoes to determine where they are and where their prey is. Echolocation allows bats to “see” not only where they are going but also how big another animal is, what kind of animal it is, and other identifying features.
A bat must open its mouth to echolocate/emit sounds. Unfortunately, a human who sees a bat open its mouth, which provides a glimpse of its teeth, mistakenly assumes that a bat is “snarling.” In fact the bat is trying to gauge where and how big this potential two-legged predator is! Bats are terrified of humans, as they would be any other predator, including owls, hawks, snakes, raccoons, cats, and dogs.
Echolocation is very precise, but it only works for about six feet ahead of a bat, and it takes an enormous amount of energy. So unless bats are actively hunting, or flying in unfamiliar territory, they rely on their eyes or having memorized their routes.
What should you do if you find a bat in your house?
Bats come and go from the outside, and often no human knows they’re there. Occasionally, though, a bat will get lost and end up in the human part of a building, but when they do, they are not searching for humans or even for food or water: They’re just looking for a way out!
A bat lost in a house will fly at all sources of light, from television and computer screens to ceiling lights, nursery night lights, and even lit DVD players and digital clocks. Bats evolved in caves, and in a cave, LIGHT means OUT. Bats in houses are merely trying to fly back outside, where their sources of food and water are found. If you find a bat in your house, there is no need to chase it with a broom, or try to guide it outside; in fact, using a broom or other implement to “shoo” a bat will force the bat to focus on trying to avoid the broom, distracting it from its true purpose, getting back outside! The best thing to do is turn all indoor lights off, open doors and windows, turn outside lights on, stay very still, and allow the bat to find its own way out successfully.
While it is true that bats are wild animals, and they can be infected with rabies, it is very uncommon to encounter a rabid bat. Statistically, fewer than 5% of bats submitted for testing test positive for rabies in Ohio. If a bat appears sick, injured or is unable to fly, you should contact organizations that safely remove and rehabilitate bats. A simple Google search will reveal many options. Here in Columbus, a fantastic resource is Ohio Wildlife Center and its hospital, located at 2661 Billingsley Road, 43235. The Ohio Wildlife Center’s hospital is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays or Sundays. Simply call 614-793-WILD, or find more information is at their website.
Since bats provide so many benefits to our environment, “Bat Woman” Anita Buck urges peaceful coexistence with bats and admiration (from afar), rather than fear and frenzy. –Nancy J. Golden
Nancy J. Golden is a freelance writer and editor who lives Columbus (Beechwold), Ohio with her adorable yellow lab, Lily, and her husband of 21 years, Bob. Educated at Transylvania University (It’s a FOR REAL school!) and The Ohio State University (M.A. in Women’s Studies & M.A. in English), Nancy is a former college and high school English teacher and remains a private writing coach/tutor who enjoys walking, hiking, biking, reading, and all kinds of music and pets.