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Enjoy Magazine

Dispelling Fears About Bats

09/27/2015 10:19PM ● By Laura Christman

Going Batty

October 2015
By Laura Christman

Bats are high-pitched, erratic, drawn to darkness and spend a lot of time hanging upside down. No wonder they’re right in there with vampires, skeletons, witches, mummies and Halloween’s other creepy characters.

But perhaps they shouldn’t be. Let’s be clear right off the bat: It’s good to have flying mammals darting about. The world needs them. They keep pests in check, pollinate plants and disperse seeds. They’re also rather amazing.

Organizations dedicated to bat conservation are using Halloween—the very season that plays to folklore fears—to improve the image of these little creatures of the night. Halloween serves as an attention-getter, says Micaela Jemison, Bat Conservation International’s communications manager, noting National Bat Week is Oct. 25-31.

“Bats are on people’s minds. We like to celebrate bats for all they do for us,” she says.

“I take advantage of it. I love Halloween,” says Corky Quirk, founder of Northern California Bats in Sacramento. “I do a lot of presentations to schools and nature centers trying to dispel the myths of bats.”

The North State has 17 bat species, Quirk says. Some hang out in caverns; others like cliffs, trees, crevices, buildings or bridges.

“We have bats that migrate and bats that are residents,” she notes.

All are insect eaters, gobbling mosquitoes, moths, grasshoppers and beetles. They’re important to farms and forests because they consume pests that damage crops and trees.

Erratic flight—darting, flipping, abruptly changing direction – isn’t designed to freak. It’s how bats nab bugs.

“They are not only using their mouths. Some have membranes between their legs and tail they use to scoop up and flick insects into their mouths,” Jemison explains.

Echolocation – bouncing high-frequency clicks off objects – helps some bats pinpoint even the tiniest of insects. That doesn’t mean they can’t see. Bats have excellent vision.

“Blind as a bat is not true,” Jemison says.

The Mexican free-tailed bat is a common species in Northern California. It has adapted to human places, roosting under bridges and beneath eaves or fascia boards on buildings, Quirk says. A mother Mexican free-tailed bat can find her pup among hundreds in a nursing colony by relying on a unique call and scent.

Baby bats are born big – weighing in at about 30 percent of the mother’s weight. “That’s like humans giving birth to a 2-year-old,” Jemison says.

Northern California doesn’t have the large bats with foxlike faces that slurp nectar and eat fruit. This region’s bats are small with more compact or scrunched faces. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

“I think their faces are very attractive,” Quirk says. One of her favorites is the red bat. “It is amazingly beautiful. It looks much like a peach hanging from a tree.”

A common reaction when she shows live bats during presentations is surprise at their tininess. Some bodies are only a few inches long. In flight, with wings spread, bats seem larger. “They are so very small. Even people who are initially hesitant usually soften when they see them,” Quirk says.

Bad feelings about bats often are linked to rabies. Bats can contract the deadly virus—as can other mammals, including skunks, raccoons and foxes—but the majority of bats don’t. “It is an extremely low percentage,” Jemison says.

Bats with rabies become sick and die. Never pick up a bat on the ground, Jemison warns. The hands-off rule is common sense for other wild creatures too.

Dracula and his ilk pose another image problem for bats. “Particularly around Halloween there are a lot of connections with vampire bats,” Jemison says. But she notes that of the 1,300 bat species in the world, only three drink blood, and two of those species target birds. Blood-drinkers don’t live in North America.

Bats are a large and varied group throughout the world. Some are as tiny as a bee; others as big as a fox. An Australian species hunts so precisely that it can pluck a spider from a web without destroying the web, Jamison notes. Habitat loss and diseases like White-nose syndrome (a serious problem in Eastern North America) threaten bats.

Quirk hopes people replace fear of bats with admiration. “The biggest thing, I think, is education. The more people understand and know about bats, the less likely they are to do them harm.”