Bats get a bad rap
The shops are full of Halloween decorations now, many of them featuring bats. I’m not quite sure why bats are connected to Halloween, but I suspect it is because of vampire bats. Or maybe it is just things that fly in the night. We don’t have any vampire bats in California, but we do have at least nine bat species in Sonoma County. The Mexican Free Tail Bat is the most common.
This amazing camera trap photo catches a Hoary Bat in flight. Bats are too small to trigger the camera. This bat flew by just as the skunk triggered the camera.
People sometimes find bats scary, but they really shouldn’t. Happily, the public perception of bats, like wolves, has been changing over the years in a positive way. Bats are critically important in pollination and seed dispersal. They are highly beneficial as they eat their weight in insects every night. They eat so many insects and other pests that the USGS estimates that farmers in North America would lose a minimum of three billion dollars in crops each year without bats. You don’t need pesticides if you’ve got bats, but the lack of insects because of pesticides is a problem for them. Wind turbines are also claiming the lives of way too many bats and birds. White Nose Syndrome has killed millions of bats, since it was discovered a few years ago. There is a lot of effort going into preventing this disease. White Nose Syndrome has not reached the West Coast, and let’s hope it never does. Research is also going into the wind turbine issue, as there must be a way to save both bats and the planet at the same time.
Our house has a high-pitched roof, and inside a very high ceiling. Under the eaves at one end of the house there is a small colony of Mexican Free-Tail Bats. During the warm months we will see them flying outside the house as they emerge at dusk on their nightly quest to find insects. Sometimes, if I wake just before dawn, I see them through our bedroom window as they return to their roost after a hard night’s work.
About once a year, a misguided bat gets into our house. I say misguided, as bats really don’t want anything to do with humans or to be in houses. When that happens, we go into our “help the bat get out of here” mode. This technique has never failed, so I recommend it if a bat gets into your house. First, and this is important, remain calm, as the bat is already scared. Secure your pets, and keep children out of the way. Carefully close interior doors, so that the bat will be in one room or area of the house. Then give the bat an exit by opening an outside door or window – or both. We usually turn our outside lights on and our inside lights off. The bat will sense the outside air and eventually head out. Be patient, as it could take a little time. We stand by the walls, rather than in the middle of the room where the bat may be flying, and during this whole procedure one of us always keeps an eye on the bat.
We have a tiny, but mighty cat, Sasha, who is usually the one to spot the bat in the first place. More than once, she has caught the bat before we have had a chance to catch her. In this case, one of us grabs Sasha, while the other protects the bat before another pet joins in. Handling downed bats requires wearing leather gloves, which a bat could not bite through with its tiny teeth. Putting the bat on a piece of fabric, like a towel, and escorting it out is the way to go here. Many bats can’t launch from the ground, so place the towel into the crook of a tree or where there is some height for the bat to launch from. Bats, like all mammals, are a rabies vector species, so you must always wear gloves when handling them. Sasha is vaccinated annually for rabies even though she is an indoor cat.
I recently read that nearly 40% of American bat species are in severe decline. They are quite vulnerable to extinction. One of the reasons is that they are the slowest reproducing mammals for their size on earth. A bat pregnancy is about the same length as a human one, and usually they only produce one young per year.
Sharon Ponsford is a a longtime volunteer with Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue and a former board member of the California Council of Wildlife Rehabilitators. She lives in Glen Ellen. If you have questions or would like to ask her about our local wildlife, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.