Batty about bats

A brown bat drops in through an open door and flies around the screened in porch last summer at Rusty Metal Farm.
Julia Bayly
A brown bat drops in through an open door and flies around the screened in porch last summer at Rusty Metal Farm.
By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff
Posted July 11, 2013, at 3:32 p.m.

FORT KENT, Maine — I admit it, I am bats about bats.

Go ahead, make all the “she’s batty” jokes you want, I am a proud, card-carrying bat fan.

Sure, they have a bad rap and thanks to writers going back to Bram Stoker, they have been cast as creepy villains from page to screen.

But in truth, bats like Maine’s little brown and big brown bats are really among man’s best friends, especially if you enjoy spending anytime at all outside during Maine’s all-too-brief summer.

“They have a huge impact on insect control,” according to Susan Gallo, wildlife biologist with the Maine Audubon Society. “They can eat 1,000 mosquitoes per night per bat, and that’s a huge impact on the annoyance factor of insects.”

Stats like that reinforce why there is something of a bat village here at Rusty Metal Farm — three special “bat houses” are affixed to the south and east facing exterior walls of the house and each is fully occupied.

Each evening from late spring to early fall, I can sit on the couch and watch through the window as the bats come swooping out one-by-one for an evening of mosquito feasting.

But my little flying mammal friends are in danger.

Maine Audubon is in the middle of a statewide bat count in the wake of the spreading white-nose syndrome, a cold-tolerant fungus that has wiped out entire hibernating bat colonies in 20 states since first being identified in this country in 2006.

I remember first hearing about white-nose syndrome and how it affects the bats who develop an irritating rash that Gallo said causes them to wake up during hibernation.

Coming out of hibernation during the winter means the bats use up important energy stores often leaving them too weak to survive the rest of the winter or raise young, Gallo said

“This has had a dramatic impact in the Northeast,” she said. “To date, more than five million bats have died because of white-nose syndrome.”

That’s a lot of bug control that is gone, when you figure 1,000 mosquitoes a night times five million bats.

Because of the syndrome, Maine Audubon is trying to get a handle on the state’s bat population and is looking to the bat-loving public for help.

Through the end of the month, anyone who has identified the location of bat colonies — bat nurseries, if you will — are encouraged to take part in the society’s survey by counting the number of bats that emerge at dusk.

So, you can bet that the evening hours between now and Aug. 1 will find me outside in a comfy lawn chair, clicker-counter in hand and eyes trained upward.

And this is what I learned this week: for years I thought our bat houses were home to batty-versions of the nuclear family with mom, dad and the kids.

Not so, explained Gallo. All colonies are maternal nurseries with females raising the young.

The guys, she said, live solitary lives elsewhere.

“The mother [bats] all get together in a maternal roosting colony, have their babies, forage at night and spend the day with the babies,” Gallo said. “This time of year, it’s just the moms leaving the colony, but in a week or so the young ones will start leaving to learn how to fly and forage on their own.”

The dads, on the other hand, “go off and live on their own with no tight social bonds,” Gallo said. “They sort of just do their own thing.”

Night time is bat time, and they impose no curfews on themselves. Many a night I have been woken by the sounds of my little leather-winged friends brushing up against the screen on my bedroom window as they go after the mosquitos collecting on the outside.

Every so often they do decide to get a bit too neighborly and drop inside for a visit.

I remember one morning years ago when, as I was leaving for work, I saw a bat flapping around the living room.

Running late, I opted to simply deal with it later. When I got home that night, my late husband Patrick was in his recliner and asked, “Did you forget to tell me something today?”

Apparently he and the bat met as Patrick was walking down the stairs to the basement and the bat was flying up. Pretty much a toss-up on who was more startled, though the only bigger bat fan here on the farm than me, was Patrick.

Pat’s Bats we called them and for years friends and family were on the receiving end of his handmade bat houses.

Another time we managed to corner a different bat visitor in the bathroom, and after some discussion on the best way to encourage it to go back to the great outdoors, decided the bat had no more desire to be inside than we did to have it there.

So, we closed the bathroom door, opened the window and by morning it was gone.

Turns out, this is the exact thing to do when a bat is in the house, Gallo said.

“Don’t go after it with a tennis racket,” she said. “Just open the windows and close the doors.”

Bats will not go after people nor get tangled in hair, contrary to popular myth.

“The best option if you don’t want them in your house or attic is to put up the bat houses,” Gallo said. “But you need to give them time to move in, they can be pretty fussy about where they live.”

Gallo spoke of one couple in the state who are such fans of the bats, they sectioned off part of their attic just for the bats.

You probably won’t see me doing that anytime soon, but I have taken up the bat house building torch, thanks to the plans available from groups like Bat Conservation International.

Because, according to Gallo, the bats need our help.

“I think we may see them on the state [endangered species] list one day soon,” she said. “That’s really something to consider when you think just 10 years ago they were among our most abundant mammals.”

Bat colony observations can be submitted at www.maineaudubon.org/bats. For questions or further information about the Bat Conservation Project, email Susan Gallo at sgallo@maineaudubon.org or call (207) 781-2330 x216.

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award winning writer and photographer, who writes part time for Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at jbayly@bangordailynews.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/07/11/living/batty-about-bats/ printed on November 22, 2014