Giving bats a hand

Flying, furry allies in the garden and beyond

Years ago a friend of mine, an animal control officer, was called to a church that literally had bats in the belfry.

I didn’t know that could actually happen, though I suppose the expression had to come from somewhere. Nor did I fully grasp, then, that the winged, furry, nocturnal creatures associated with witches, black cats, ghosts, pumpkins and other delights of Halloween (my favorite holiday) are our environmental allies. The bats in that church should have been greeted by the pastor and sent cookies by the outreach committee with a “thank you for joining us” note.

Actually, bats can cause problems in human structures – not because they attack humans or get tangled in their hair. They avoid humans, and their excellent night vision and echolocation ability make it easy for them to avoid the snares of hair, especially a church lady’s freshly lacquered ‘do. The problems occur because their droppings and urine create stains, odors and even respiratory disease if allowed to accumulate. And yes, bats – along with raccoons and skunks – can carry rabies, which is another reason to humanely remove/exclude them from homes and other buildings and avoid contact with them.

But again, the bats don’t want contact with us, either. They just want a safe space to roost, raise their young and do what they do best: keep the insect population under control. A single bat can consume more than 1,000 insects per hour.

So no Bible study invites for the bats, but making it easier for them to do their thing where they ought to be doing it benefits us all.

All but one of the 13 bat species living in Indiana are either endangered or “of special concern,” according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. This is due to disease (especially white-nose syndrome) and the habitat loss that has affected so many other creatures. Wind turbines, ironically intended as a more environmentally friendly energy source, have also killed a number of migratory bats.

To provide bats with more places to live and keep an eye on how the different species are faring, the Indiana DNR this year distributed 100 free bat houses to Indiana properties meeting certain habitat requirements. About 240 people signed up, said Cassie Hudson, nongame assistant biologist with the Indiana DNR’s Division of Fish & Wildlife. A second round of distributions is coming; check www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild/8301.htm for updates. Participants should have a place to install the bat house at least 12 feet off the ground (on a pole or side of a building) where it can receive at least six hours a day of direct sunlight.

“Gardens are definitely a nice area to bring bats in to eat insects,” said Natalie Haley, environmental educator with Allen County Parks. She said homeowners with utility light poles in or near their yards are already drawing insects to the area, so having a bat house could be a natural way to keep the insects from munching on plants.

If you want to purchase a bat house yourself, Hudson suggests using a vendor certified by Bat Conservation International. You can find a list of these at www.batcon.org/resources/getting-involved/bat-houses/bat-house-buy. Not all bat houses are the same, and while you may be able to go to a big box store or online vendor and buy one, it has to work for the bats.

“In general, bigger is better,” Hudson said. “I suggest a house with at least three chambers.”

Then, patience is required. Even if you have provided the perfect bat real estate, it may take the discerning creatures one to three years to find it and settle in.

“Bats are a vital part of the environment in terms of their pest control,” Hudson said.

Bats hold a unique place in the world as the only mammals that fly. Their order is called Chiroptera, which means “winged hand.”

Let’s give them a hand, as well.

First appeared in the October 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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