Bats in Your Belfry? Lucky You!Oct 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Gayle Morrow
I saw a few bats over the summer. Maybe three. In years past, summer’s night skies would be teeming with the flitting, dipping, diving, insect-eating little guys. Seeing their tiny bodies and unique-among-mammals wings outlined against the enchantment of a still-light-at-9:30-sky was its own kind of magic.
Not so much these days. White nose syndrome has taken its toll across the country in the seventeen years since it was first detected, killing millions of little brown bats, northern long-eared bats, and tri-colored bats. Pennsylvania has lost an estimated 99.9 percent of its little brown bat population as the result of this fungus-caused illness. Of the 154 different species of bats in North America, 47 percent are considered to be vulnerable to extinction due to white nose syndrome, loss of habitat, and climate change.
White nose syndrome probably came from Europe, where it’s been around for a while and where the bats seem to have developed some resistance to its effects. The fungus—Pseudogymnoascus destructans—which thrives in cold, damp places, is irritating enough to hibernating bats to wake them up; they then go out in search of food, which they won’t find in great abundance in winter. They die from starvation or exposure. I remember seeing a bat flying around one winter afternoon a couple of years ago. I would have tried to help it if I had known what to do.
Mary Warwick, the executive director of the Houston Human Society TWRC Wildlife Center, would have known. Around Christmas time last year, Houston was in the midst of a cold snap. The Mexican free-tailed bats living under a bridge near the city’s downtown (it’s a colony of 250,000 that’s been there for nearly thirty years, and is actually a tourist attraction) got so cold they began dropping from their roost to the concrete below. Hundreds of them. Mary put as many as she could in boxes and took them home. Then she went back for more. Others helped. The bats—about three inches long, with little body fat to help them ward off the cold—were in hypothermic shock. She warmed them, fed them, eventually returned them to their colony, and, in between all that, hosted a Christmas dinner for her family (search for “woman in Houston who saved cold bats,” or something like that, for stories on it).
While most of us would not likely go to the lengths Mary Warwick did to save bats, it’s good to get past the fear and hype around them. There are 1,100 species worldwide—big ones, like the flying fox, with its six-foot wingspan, and little ones, like the bumblebee bat, weighing less than a penny. A bat can eat up to 1,200 mosquitos per hour. They pollinate plants and disperse seeds. Oh, and bat guano was Texas’s largest mineral export before oil, BTW.
Two of Pennsylvania’s nine species are on the federal endangered species list; the state also has its own list of endangered bats. Bats are non-game animals and are protected by state law when flying or hibernating. Nobody likes bats squeaking and flapping around in the living room—the bats would prefer to not be there, either. When you get a bat in the house, put the tennis racket down, open doors and windows, do your own flapping with arms and/or a towel, and the bat will likely vacate the premises. Visit pabatrescue.org for more information.
My friend Janelle, who lives nearby in a lovely old farmhouse, says her attic is full of bats and has been for years. There’s no getting rid of them, she says matter-of-factly.
Let’s hope not.