Going batty: Get to know these misunderstood mammals

BAT SNUGGLES: Regional wildlife experts work to show the public that bats can be crucial, not just creepy. Photo courtesy of N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission
BAT SNUGGLES: Regional wildlife experts work to show the public that bats can be crucial, not just creepy. Photo courtesy of N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission

Bats flapping eerily through moonlight. Bats baring fangs dripping with blood. Bats attacking shrieking victims. These iconic ideas of bats creep up around Halloween and don’t make much sense to area wildlife experts. Bats aren’t scary, they stress; if anything, a world without them is truly horrifying. It would be covered in creepy crawlies and all aflutter with biting insects.

“Bats are the biggest nocturnal aerial insectivores,” explains Kendrick Weeks with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. And thanks to their ability to echolocate, they’re darn good at the job.

“It’s almost incomprehensible how many insects they actually eat,” adds Katherine Caldwell, a biologist with the commission who is based in Asheville. Bats’ predilection for pests helps keep the insect population from being out of control, she adds.

Bat myths busted

Despite their reputation, bats don’t employ echolocation because they’re blind. In reality, they can see about as well as humans can, says Caldwell. She notes that humans would find it difficult to forage in the dark after not eating all day, too.

MOVING IN: A worker with Asheville-based Smart Feller Tree Works builds and installs a multichamber bat box to house female maternity colonies of cave-dwelling bats. Photo courtesy of Smart Feller
MOVING IN: A worker with Asheville-based Smart Feller Tree Works installs a bat box at the appropriate height using tree care equipment. Photo courtesy of Smart Feller

Blindness isn’t the only myth Weeks and Caldwell regularly hear repeated about the mammals that fuels their spooky status. Most often, they hear from folks worried a bat will build a nest in their hair, a concept Caldwell quickly shoots down. To begin with, they don’t build nests, she points out. Nor do they willingly interact with people.

As an example, Caldwell says she and her colleagues spend the summer catching bats for research. “We go to such elaborate lengths: We set up these gigantic nets; it takes hours,” she says. “If all I had to do was tease up my hair really, really big, you better believe I would stand outside and just do that!”

What’s more, bats won’t suck your blood — at least, Western North Carolina bats won’t. Only three of the more than 1,300 bat species are vampire bats, and they live in Central and South America (and overwhelmingly prefer livestock and birds).

They also aren’t all rabid. Only around 2 percent of all bats tested in North Carolina test positive for rabies, Caldwell says, making risk of infection low. That being said, the commission takes rabies seriously.

“You don’t want to ever go touching bats with your bare hands,” Caldwell warns. “But just don’t be so fearful that it prevents you from understanding these organisms and appreciating their ecosystem benefits.”

Think inside the box

The benefits bats bring as important insectivores and pollinators make the devastation from white nose syndrome all the more critical. In recent years, this fungus has wiped out much of the cave-dwelling bat population in WNC and across the nation, and it continues to wreak havoc. (See “Caving In,” July 5, Xpress)

ROOM OF THEIR OWN: A multichamber bat box can house female maternity colonies of cave-dwelling bats. The bats leave their hibernation caves to roost and give birth in spring and summer. Photo courtesy of Smart Feller
ROOM OF THEIR OWN: A multichamber bat box can house female maternity colonies of cave-dwelling bats. The bats leave their hibernation caves to roost and give birth in spring and summer. Photo courtesy of Smart Feller

Residents can help cave bats by providing bat boxes for those that come out of hibernation looking for new roosts in the spring and summer. Bat houses can also help scientists like Weeks and Caldwell better monitor the population’s slow recovery.

Caldwell points out, though, that these man-made roosts are merely additional habitat. “Here, we’re fortunate,” she says. “We’re not really limited on forest and trees,” locations where cave bats roost in warmer months. That means residents of the mountain region who put up bat boxes are not necessarily providing roosting opportunities that were lacking.

Still, Caldwell says she loves to see people in WNC put forth the effort to install boxes. She sees them as perfect tools to help the animals shed their stereotypes, as people get more comfortable around them. She does emphasize to box owners that they shouldn’t expect their night-loving neighbors to move in right away — it can take years.

According to Yoko Detrich, a bat house builder who’s also in charge of communications for Asheville-based Smart Feller Tree Works, 90 percent of the boxes that bats will ever live in will be occupied within the first three years. The tree service company began offering handmade bat boxes and installation this summer. “We were trying to figure out different ways where we could involve ourselves more with the care not only of trees but also the animals that depend on trees,” Detrich says.

Detrich recognizes that the boxes are an investment and not a sure one. That’s why Smart Feller will buy boxes back from customers if they aren’t inhabited within that three-year time frame. And, it’s why Detrich and her team follow creation and installation guidelines outlined by the Wildlife Resources Commission and other organizations, such as Bat Conservation International (batcon.org).

While the company won’t know right away if houses become successfully inhabited, “We’re hopeful,” Detrich says. “We know what we’re doing, and we’re trying to give every box the best chance.”

Smart Feller offers multichamber boxes that allow for large female maternity colonies to take up roost, birth and rear their pups. It hangs their houses at an appropriate height — at least 15 feet off the ground — and chooses either dead trees with the branches removed or free-standing poles for installation. This keeps predators at bay and allows plenty of space for the bats to leave the box unencumbered, because they drop down as they begin to fly.

Location is everything, Caldwell echoes. “We recommend really putting a lot of thought into where you’re going to put that bat box … to maximize the chance your bats will use it,” she says. Bats may not be frightening, she says, but they are finicky.

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About Maggie Cramer
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