In a life filled with outdoor activities, I have only come upon bats up close and personal twice. Once was while I was spelunking a cave in Syracuse during college (he was hanging from the ceiling, as expected!) and once while I was in the Dominican Republic, when I found a tiny, adorable bat curled up asleep under a giant leaf.
But while I was standing in the northern part of Central Park a week ago, on a bat walk put together by the Audubon Society of NYC, I realized that bats had been all around me - I had just never noticed them. Bats, as you would suspect, come out at dusk, and because they way they fly is similar to birds, its easy to mistake them from their feathered fellow fliers. Indeed, the first bats of the evening mingled in the darkening sky along with the last birds, and to the untrained eye, they were indistinguishable.
Our bat walk leader, Paul Keim, had already filled us in on all sorts of great details about bats — how they are not rodents, but mammals, that bats inhabit all the continents save Antarctica, and that bats aren't blind at all — though they use echolocation to find their prey, they can see just fine.
But most amazing to me was the stat that bats need to eat their body weight in insects every day to survive. In fact, bats are a major control against those insects that most bug human beings, like mosquitoes and other biting summer nuisances. (Besides bug eating, they also pollinate plants in the Southern Hemisphere, where they are responsible for pollinating about 80 percent of rain forest plants). So the recent threats to bat health, especially White Nose Syndrome (a fungus that kills 95 percent of those it infects) not only kill bats, but can lead to out-of-control insect populations.
So it is in our own human best interest to keep bat populations healthy. Fewer insects means fewer itchy bites, and more importantly, fewer pesticides needed for our food crops - including those in our own gardens!
As the group of bat-curious folks and I watched the Little Brown Bats swoop and zoom in Central Park (and listened to their calls on a special small machine that allowed us to hear them), I couldn't believe I'd never known how important these tiny fliers were. Not only are they unknown, by most, but much of what we do know is steeped in fear and suspicion, what with the connection between bats and vampires, and other negative stories (bats don't like to fly into our hair at all - but they do like to eat the insects that tend to gather over our warm heads at night, looking for a meal, and when we see the bat coming and duck....). Hmmm - seems like bats just need better PR, and the Audubon Society is one of the organizations working on just that.
So how can we help these incredibly important warm-blooded animals (and cut down on insects around your home and garden)? Bats can have trouble finding a safe place in our developed landscapes to roost during the day while they rest, and bat houses give them a space of their own, just the way they like it. You can buy or make (great DIY instructions here from Audubon Magazine) a bat house for your local bats to sleep the day away. And if you spend time in caves, be sure to disinfect your clothes so you don't pass White Nose Syndrome along from cave-to-cave.
And if a bat gets in your house accidentally, don't kill it - simply close the doors of the room its in, open the windows, and shut off the lights. He or she will find their way out using their echolocation skills in no time.