Why are so many bats dying? Go ahead, blame it on the rain

Posted Aug. 16, 2009, at 6:55 p.m.

Damn. Another dead bat.

This one is in the middle of the driveway. Its wings are spread. You can see its little flat face, sort of mouselike and even cute if it wasn’t for the notion that bats are underworld creatures who carry diseases.

The diseases have been one of the worries around our house for years with this colony of little brown bats summering in the attic. They haunt the yard in early evening, terrorizing whatever is small and airborne — beetles, moths — by echolocation, which means they send out extremely high-pitched sounds and calculate the coordinates of dinner by listening to the shape of the sound bouncing back. We’ve thought bug patrol is the least they can do, given the mess they make.

This summer they’ve been dying, though. This one lying in the driveway about mid-July was the 10th or 12th corpse we’ve found in the yard.

I wish the bats would go away, but I don’t wish them dead. For netherworld denizens, they like it up high. Their entryway to the house is a hole at the peak of the roof a good 25 feet above the driveway, too lofty to plug while the occupants are away at their winter digs. You don’t want to seal them in there alive; a colony of rotting bat carcasses in the attic would be worse than bats flapping around in the evening. A friend suggested taping a plastic bag, open at both ends, to a piece of PVC pipe and pushing it tight into the hole at the peak — a sort of bat lobster trap they can slip out of but not back into.

We’ll try that when we get access to a ladder long enough to reach that high ourselves. Meanwhile, why are they dying?

People who keep track of bat current events might guess they have white-nose syndrome, which is a fungus that in recent years has killed hundreds of thousands of Northeastern bats. That was my guess. That or rabies. Both possibilities seem menacing.

I e-mailed the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Waldo County about our dead bats, which set off a round of wildlife expert e-mails, and eventually I was talking on the phone with Wally Jakubas, mammal group leader with the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

He told me that contrary to popular belief, bats have rabies no more frequently than any other north woods animals. You still don’t want to handle one because they do bite — from fear, not ferocity — and could be sick.

Jakubas also said that our dead bats probably do not have white-nose. Even though it has taken a massive toll on bats in New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and other places, and even though it’s thought that many Maine summer bats overwinter in caves in those places, no incidences of white-nose have been verified here.

In fact, his theory, based on other calls he and his colleagues have received, is — why am I not surprised? — that this summer’s miserable weather is a likely cause. He said bats thrive in heat, which is why they hole up in 110-degree attics. This summer being cool and wet, the adult bats probably have been debilitated and had some difficulty nursing their young. These young bats, somewhat malnourished, grew up weakened. The cool weather made them even weaker, causing them to have trouble catching insects efficiently. The young bats are dying of starvation.

I don’t wish them dead. They’re mammals, after all (though not rodents — they have their own order Chiroptera, which means hand wing), and are our distant, if demonic-looking, relatives through a shrewlike ancestor. And even though they can carry rabies, SARS and maybe the Ebola virus, and have dim yaksha eyes that inspire night fears from deep in the evolutionary past, they clear the air of worse things and, after all, live here with us, at least as afraid of us as we are of them.

Live and let live, seems better. Just not in the attic.

naturalist@dwildepress.net

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