Bats: everything you know is wrong

by Chris Klein
grew up with the same Halloween images and beliefs about bats that most people have: blind, black, flying, hairless, rabies-carrying rodents that could get tangled in your hair, if you weren't careful. Vampire types might suck your blood while you were asleep. "Like a bat out of hell," indeed. They seemed to be creepy pests with no redeeming value, and I was glad there weren't any where I lived in Pacific Beach.
Just about everything I "knew" about bats was wrong.
Of course, historically, I was in good company. Bats have been looked on as symbols of evil, mystery and witchcraft centuries before Shakespeare's witches' brew called for "eye of newt ... wool of bat." The devil and dragons are often depicted with bat-like wings. In some cultures, witch doctors wore bat amulets and made potions with parts of bat bodies. In the middle ages, anyone who had bats, known as "witches' birds," living in his house was accused of being a witch and burned at the stake. In Central America, the bat was the god of death, and the bat motif decorates burial urns and graves.
Admittedly, not all superstitions about the bat have been evil. In China, bats symbolize good luck, long life and happiness. Natives of eastern Australia regard the bat as man's lucky totem. In Anatolia, a region of Turkey, some people still carry a bat bone for a love charm.
First century A.D. physicians in Egypt prescribed parts of bats for curing asthma, rheumatism and baldness. In India, the skin of large fruit-eating bats called flying foxes is still applied to cure lumbago and rheumatism.
California Indians believed they could find the source of a fire with the aid of bats. They also believed that the long-eared bat, which has an arrow-shaped growth on its nose, ate volcanic rock and spewed out fine arrows.

A Big brown bat, one of almost 1,000 species of bat. Bats are found worldwide on every continent except Antarctica.

Batty about bugs

I got my first dose of reality one summer while rafting down the Colorado River. At dusk, our camp by the river was surrounded by dozens of bats, swooping, lurching and diving erratically. Thinking seriously about zipping myself into the tent (they couldn't get into a tent, could they?), I noticed that the river guides were completely ignoring bats passing within inches of their bodies. I realized these lore-masters of the outdoors probably knew something I didn't, and they were happy to fill me in.
The bats were after insects, their primary diet. This included a sizeable quantity of mosquitoes. I've always been prime mosquito bait. My opinion of the creatures started to improve.
An individual bat can eat up to 3,000 insects nightly, and has been observed to consume from 600 to 1000 insects per hour. It is estimated that the brown bat - common throughout North America - may eat up to half its body weight in insects in a night's feeding. The 20 million individuals of the freetail colony living in Bracken Cave in Texas may eat a quarter million pounds of insects per night!
The seemingly erratic flight is due to the way the bats catch the insects. As you may know, bats use a form of acoustic radar to navigate. They send out ultrasonic squeaks, too high pitched for a human to hear, and use the returning echo to determine the location, distance and size of objects. When the echo indicates a bug-sized object, they home in on it and use their wing to scoop it into their mouth. When the echo indicates a larger object - say, a tree, telephone wire or my body - they can avoid it, even on a pitch black night.
Nabbing an insect every 5 seconds or so calls for some fancy flying, to say nothing of what using a wing to scoop up an insect does to their flight plan.
So, given this degree of acoustic and aerobatic legerdemain, was a bat really going to run into me or get tangled in my hair? No way. Compared to their usual prey, I was a huge, slow moving object. Bats are not at all aggressive (except to insects, of course), and evolution has provided most mouse-sized creatures with the good sense to stay away from large mammals. In short, I couldn't have come in contact with one if I had tried.
I began to really appreciate their nightly insect vigil. Every close sweep past my face was one less mosquito bite on my nose. Yes!

The California leaf-nosed bat, so named for the small leaf-shaped pattern on the end of the nose, is one variety found in San Diego County.

Myth-taken beliefs

Most of my other ideas about bats were wrong, too.

Rabies: Bats do not carry rabies more frequently than any other species, such as dogs or cats (less than one-half of one percent of animals are affected). Moreover, unlike dogs and cats afflicted with rabies, rabid bats rarely show signs of aggression; they soon become paralyzed by the disease and die. There have been no cases of large outbreaks of rabies among bats, as there are from time to time among such wild animals as skunks and squirrels.
So, avoiding trouble is simple: don't pick up a sick bat.

Rodents: Bats are not rodents, despite the fact that they bear a surface resemblance to a winged mouse. Biologists tell us that bats are more closely related to the order of primates (that includes humans) than they are to the rodents. Their arm and hand bones are primate-like, and they have canine teeth as opposed to the large incisors of rodents. This is important to biologists; just thought you'd like to know.

Vampires: OK, so out of about 1,000 species of bat there are three species of vampire bat living in South and Central America. In a painless procedure, these bats draw small amounts of blood from sleeping livestock, notably cattle and chickens. This reputedly does no damage to the cattle; I'm not sure about the chickens.
The remaining 997 or so species around the world are mainly insectivores or vegetarians, except for several species in India, Southeast Asia, Australia and South America that feed on small birds, mammals, or reptiles.
The vegetarian bats perform several valuable services for the farmer. Nectar- and pollen-feeding bats are indispensable for the reproductive success of many types of fruit trees. In tropical areas, some of the fruits, nuts, spices and products derived from plants we have come to depend on are pollinated by bats: avocados, balsa wood, bananas, sisal for rope, cashews, cloves, dates, figs, mangos, peaches, agave for Tequila and sugarcane for rum.

Appearance: While their wings are indeed hairless, the bats' bodies are covered with fur. While many do have black or brown fur, others are red, tan, white, yellow and even orange. Bats sport a wide variety of facial features, some with leaf-like projections on their noses and fox-like faces.
The smallest bat species weighs only about 1/15 ounce and has a wingspan of about 6 inches; the largest bat weighs about 2 pounds with a wingspan of 67 inches.

Eyesight: Bats are not blind. In some species, particularly the herbivores, vision is acute and necessary to survival.

Sounds: The squeaks and chirps that you hear bats make are used for communication. As mentioned , their echolocation sounds are way outside our range of hearing.

Bat and man forever?

Scientists are concerned that bats are waning in number and in diversity of species. Sixteen of North America's 43 species of bat are on the endangered species list, and eight more are under consideration.
It will take the efforts of individuals and groups dedicated to bat education and conservation to prevent a drastic global decline in the species diversity and overall population of these incredible flying mammals.

For more information on bat roosting habitats, conservation and new discoveries about bats, please write to: Environmental Education Farm Foundation, 25344 County Road 95, Davis, CA 95616, or call (916) 758-1387.
Bat Conservation International is an international membership organization and information clearinghouse devoted exclusively to the promotion of bat welfare and education about bats. Please write to them at: P.O. Box 162603, Austin, TX 78716-2603, or call (512) 327-9721.
Thanks to Barbara Moore and the Environmental Education Farm Foundation for providing information for this article.

Barbara on bats

The following recollection was provided by Barbara Coffin Moore, naturalist, author and Executive Director of the Chula Vista Nature Center.
've always been fascinated with bats. Just ask my mom! One of the many things my mother remembers about my childhood was my habit of bringing home bats in my pockets.
I went to a school with a real belfry (did you know that belfry is British slang for head and "bats in the belfry" means crazy?) and often the bats slept within reach of a curious eight-year old. So it was just natural to pocket one of these small mammals and take it home. Even though I had to take it back to school, a walk of 3 or 4 blocks, I brought bats home over and over again.
Let's try to dispel some of the myths and invite these wonderful creatures to co-exist with us, if not to share our lives.

Call to Action - What you can do

he San Diego Zoo has a display of some very large fruit-eating bats near the elephants. Festival Drive in Oceanside, the La Paloma Theater in Encinitas, and the old adobe at Gua-jome Regional Park are other places to see bats.
Nearly all bats roost during the day and feed at night. In areas near human habitation, bats may roost in buildings - in attics of houses or other buildings, or under the eaves.
While I hope that you may now think more kindly about bats, a colony of bats could still be a nuisance. If so, they can be simply excluded by finding and sealing up roost entrances when they leave at night. The best time to bat-proof a building is in September/October or March/April. At other times, use caution to ensure that no baby bats or non-flying juveniles are trapped inside. A light shined on their roosting spot will also discourage them.
For bat control assistance, you can call San Diego Bat Conservation at (619) 425-8987. They also give free lectures and talks to schools, scout groups and other organizations.
On the other hand, you might now be so "batty" that you'd like to have some around. Bat roosting tubes can be ordered fromthe Environmental Education Farm Foundation; see the ad at the right. For information on building a bat house, write to: Bat Conservation International, P.O. Box 162603, Austin, Texas 78716.