Being kind to bats is environmentally correct

EARTH MATTERS AT HOME

September 04, 1991|By Susan McGrath | Susan McGrath,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

We are getting to the far end of summer. Days are growing a little shorter. Leaves will soon be turning. And baby bats are nearly grown, ready to leave the nest.

This latter fact of summer may be one you haven't given much thought to. But you should be thinking about it, because those fuzzy little critters are ready for a place of their own (so to speak) and many of them may not be able to find one.

There are nearly 1,000 species of bats in the world -- accounting for almost one-quarter of mammal species. Most of them live in the tropics, though. We have a mere 42 species in the United States and Canada. A growing number of those species is on the endangered species list.

Traditionally, bats haven't enjoyed great popularity. Most people rank them with rats and cockroaches on the list of family favorites. So let me say straight out, it's not true. Bats are not blind. They are not rodents. They don't carry rabies, much. And they NEVER get tangled in women's hair. (I ask you, would an animal that can detect a mosquito crouched on a leaf in the pitch dark at 30 feet stumble into a head of hair with a whole human nTC attached to it?)

One more thing. If a bat should be so misguided as to visit your living room, do NOT shriek and swat at it with a tennis racket. Open a window, leave the room and close the door. The bat can find its own way out.

So much for bat myths. Here are some bat facts. Most bats are insect eaters. Many eat fruit. Some sup on nectar. Because of their eating habits, bats are vital to their ecosystems wherever they are found.

Nectar-eating bats are the primary pollinators of hundreds of species of fruit-bearing trees. Some plants depend exclusively on bats for reproduction. Fruit-eating bats disperse seeds, inadvertently helping plants colonize cleared or burned areas.

Insect-eating bats are the ones you're likely to see performing acrobatics at dusk. They play a vital role, too, keeping insect populations under control. A single little brown bat, weighing less than a 25-cent piece, can catch and devour as many as 600 mosquitoes in an hour's hunt. A colony of 20 million free-tailed bats in central Texas catches and consumes half a million pounds of insects in a single night. Now THERE'S an effective insecticide.

Bats are in trouble all over the world. Destruction of habitat is their main problem. Just like the little bluebird, native bats are running out of places to roost as forests are cleared, snags and old trees cut down and caves disturbed. Bats are so low on everyone's list of cute and fuzzy animals that experts don't even know how many species are endangered, but Bat Conservation International finds serious cause for concern.

Which brings me to my point: Give a bat a home, today. Put up a bat house. You can buy one (see sources below) or you can write away for plans and make one.

A bat house is basically a bottomless bird house, divided inside by several vertical boards to create roosting rooms. Because it has no bottom, droppings don't accumulate in the house. It's maintenance-free.

The bats like a warm house, so place it on the east or southeast wall of your apartment building, house or side of a tree. They prefer quiet places, high above the ground. Experts suggest between 12 and 15 feet up should keep them happy. Pick a spot that gives them a clear flight path -- not a lot of branches and wires around it.

Now be patient. It may take a year or even two to attract some bats. Check under the box for dark, pellet-shaped droppings every now and then to see if your tenants have arrived. Or shine a flashlight up into the box for just a second. Once you have bats, don't do this often, or you'll be advertising for new tenants in no time.

Let the neighbors know you have company. Break the news to them gently, and be prepared to do a little bat education, so that they don't start to reek of garlic and wear heavy silver crucifixes all the time. People are surprisingly superstitious about bats.

Bat resources:

Bat boxes are available from Bat Conservation International (BCI), P.O. Box 162603, Austin, Tex. 78716-2603. Prices vary, depending on the size of the box and whether you are a member (more on that later), but they run between $35 and $45. BCI also sells a Bat House Builder's Guide for $2.25. If you're looking for a new conservation group to get excited about, ask for their membership literature. If a colony of 20,000 bats has moved into your attic, and you're interested in getting them out, ask BCI experts for help.

Your State Department of Wildlife's Urban Wildlife program can guide you to sources of information on local bats. And your public library may carry Merlin Tuttle's classic "America's Neighborhood Bats."

If your problem is not attracting bats, but getting rid of a colony of the flying critters who are lodging in your attic, contact Marshall Hanks, 1312 Shiloh Road, Sturgeon Bay, Wis. 54235, (414) 743-9049. He specializes in kinder, gentler bat relocations.

And, finally, write to BCI and ask for a brochure and a sample of their quarterly magazine.

Have a question? Write Susan McGrath at P.O. Box 121, 1463 E. Republican St., Seattle, Wash. 98112.

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