Don’t Fear the Bat

By Peggy Farr, originally run in the Duluth Budgeteer

Ask people about bats and reactions vary. Some love them, some hate them and many are scared of them. However, most know very little about them, though many have strong prejudices and fears. Wildwoods recently received 16 bats made homeless as a result of prejudice, so it seems like a good time to talk about bats.

Bats are the only mammals that can fly and are one of several mammals that rely on hearing for navigation, though they see quite well. (“Blind as a bat” is only a saying.) Bats are from an order named Chiroptera, Greek for “hand wing.” Their wings are made of membrane stretched between long fingers.

Despite their resemblance to winged mice and their German name, Fledermaus (flutter mouse), bats are not rodents.

There are seven species of bats in Minnesota. All are small, weighing just over an ounce at most. All eat insects. Some are tree-dwelling and solitary, migrating south in the winter. Others live in groups and hibernate during the winter. At Wildwoods, we most commonly encounter big brown bats (“big” is relative as they weigh from 0.5 to 1.2 ounces) and little brown bats.

Big brown bats and the little brown bats sometimes roost in people’s houses. What can you do if you find a bat on the floor or flying about in a living space? If it’s not winter and the bat can fly, open the doors and windows and allow the bat to leave. If he is grounded, put on a pair of leather gloves, cover him gently with a towel or washcloth, pick him up, put him in a cardboard box with tiny air holes and bring him to a wildlife rehabilitator.

Never touch a bat barehanded. Like any frightened animal, bats may bite. Though the incidence of rabies in bats is low (1 in 200), if the bat bites you he will be killed in order to be tested for rabies and you made need expensive shots.

We get the occasional bat brought in during the winter, mostly big brown bats. Sometimes they wake up from hibernation during a warm spell, fly out into an open space of the building in which they were hibernating and are caught and brought in. Of course, they cannot be released outside until it is warm and there are bugs, so they must hibernate through the rest of the winter.

So how did we get 16 sleepy little bats on the same day? Someone was selling a home and the home inspector found bats in the attic. Sadly, the buyer made the immediate removal of the bats a contingency of their purchase offer.

Fortunately, the wildlife control company who performed the bat removal was the most ethical, humane one in our area: Stone River Wildlife Control (stoneriverwildlifecontrol.com). Though some might likely have killed the helpless bats, Stone gently gathered them up and brought them to us.

What would have been a better solution, if the buyer had been more flexible? Wait until August, when all the baby bats born in early spring can fly and are leaving each night to catch bugs with their moms. Then hire Stone to do a humane bat exclusion. This involves figuring out where the bats are getting in and out and putting one-way exits over the entry points.

Nobody gets trapped, nobody dies, the bats find a new home. (Consider putting up a bat house so they stay around to eat your mosquitos.) We all reap the benefits of having these bats alive and eating lots of bugs.

You’ve probably heard about White Nose Syndrome, caused by a cave-dwelling fungus from Europe. This fungus infects hibernating bats, depletes their winter energy reserves and kills them. WNS has killed millions of bats in the eastern U.S. and is spreading westward. The fungus has already been found in two bat hibernation spots in Minnesota.

WNS is a cause for grave concern. Bats are very beneficial animals, devouring mosquitos and many insects that are agricultural pests. Protecting bat colonies benefits us all and scientists are looking for solutions.

One promising treatment for WNS involves bacteria (Rhodococcus rhodochrous) that give off a volatile organic compound that inhibits fungal growth on bananas. It also cures WNS in bats. Scientists are still working on how to make use of this bacteria in large bat caves and to make sure it doesn’t have unintended side effects.

We’ve tested the 16 bats to show none have WNS. Those who are fat enough to resume hibernation have moved to an artificial bat “cave” at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota. They’ll be released back into their territory in spring.

Bats are amazing little mammals, and the more we learn about them, the more we appreciate them. What scares us the most about bats? The thought of a future without them!

Peggy Farr is a volunteer and board member of Wildwoods and works in human health care.

You may also like to read Human & Wildlife Issues: All About Bats

Posted in Animal Issues, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , .

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