Wednesday, June 24, 2009

More on Adirondack Bat Encounters

Bats are on my mind these days, thanks to the work I’m doing with the DEC survey. One of the other volunteers, who is also working on a bat project for college, just sent me an email about a baby bat that had fallen from its roost and the students who picked it up. To make a long story short, the bat was killed so it could be tested for rabies because the students had handled it without protection. So, I thought I’d dedicate this post to Proper Procedures When Encountering a Bat so that future tragedies of the same sort can be avoided.

Scenario #1: You are walking along and you see a bat on the ground – what do you do? Ideally you leave the bat alone and continue on your way. However, there are circumstances that might make this action unviable. So, first you should acertain if the bat is injured or sick. Injured bats should be taken to rehabbers. Sick bats should be sent to the state for rabies testing. Sometimes bats simply fall from their roosts (have you ever fallen out of your bed?); given the chance to do so, they will climb back up to safety. If it is a juvenile, it may not be able to climb back up, so assistance might be needed.

Never, never, never handle a bat without gloves. Better yet, don’t handle it at all. If you need to collect a bat, the best way to do so is to use a can (or jar) and a piece of cardstock. Gently place the can over the bat and gently slide the card underneath, effectively trapping the bat inside the can. If the bat is uninjured and healthy, take it outside and let it go. You can do this most easily by laying the can down on its side and walking away: the bat will crawl out, find a place to climb, and then fly away. Better yet you can empty the can gently on a branch so the bat will be able to fly off immediately.

Scenario #2: A bat flies into your house – what do you do? The best thing to do is determine what room the bat is in and then isolate it there. Close all doors and open one window. Turn out all the lights. Leave the room. The bat will find that open window and fly out. There is no need to panic. If there are no windows to open, or doors to close, follow the procedure above with the can. Eventually the bat will land somewhere (on a curtain, on a wall), and you can collect it there.

Scenario #3: Bats are roosting in your attic – what do you do? The odds are if you have a good number of bats in your attic, or barn, or garage, you probably have a maternity colony. This is a group of pregnant females who have sought your attic/barn/garage as the perfect place to give birth and raise their young. They are looking for locations that are warm (really toasty roosts help the babies mature faster) and have plenty of room to move around if it gets too warm, or too cool, in one spot. If you have a maternity colony, they will give birth by June. Baby bats are not flighted for several weeks. Once the young can fly and feed on their own, the colony moves on, usually at the end of the summer. Hiring an exterminator is really not a great idea, especially now that bat populations are declining. These days the thing to do is exclusion, wherein you locate all the entrances and exits the bats are using and seal them up…after the bats have left in the fall (or before they return in the spring). You don’t want to exclude the adults while the babies are still in the roost – they will starve to death and you will have a smelly mess. You can try erecting bat boxes nearby to provide an alternative roost site. These alternative roosts will have to be large enough to provide the bats with the conditions they need to raise their young (similar to those in your attic/barn/garage); the little boxes you can buy at garden or hardware stores are not going to cut it. For more information on bat houses, visit http://www.batcon.org/index.php/education/40-bats-and-the-public/61-bat-house-faqs.html.

Myth Busting: Forget everything your mother and friends told you about bats – chances are they are wrong.

1. Bats do not fly into your hair/head, or at least not on purpose. Have you ever accidentally walked into a wall or doorway? My theory is that in those cases in which a bat has hit someone in the head, it was simply a miscalculation on the bat’s part. It may even have been a juvenile that is still getting used to flying and using its echolocation.

2. Bats are not aggressive. As a matter of fact, they are actually rather shy animals, and many species are easily tamed. Bats only bite when cornered and given no opportunity to escape (like any other animal).

3. Bats drink your blood (after biting you on the neck). Well, first off, the only bats we have here in New York are insect eaters. You are not an insect, so you are safe. But yes, there are vampire bats – in Mexico and Central America. There are only three species of vampires; two of these species feed on birds. Only one is dependent on mammal blood, and it mostly drinks from cattle (now that cattle have moved into its habitat and are easy prey). These bats are all very small, and at most they drink (lap, actually, like a cat) a tablespoon of blood; more than that and they cannot fly.

4. Bats are dirty. Actually, bats are very clean animals. They groom themselves (and each other) almost as much as a cat does.

5. Bats are blind. Since people cannot see at night, they presume nothing else can see at night either. Therefore, bats must be blind because they fly at night without any difficulties (and we know that the blind can often navigate very well). In fact, bats have good eyesight, but they depend on echolocation (it’s like SONAR) to navigate at night and find their prey.

6. Bats are flying mice. Well, they may look like mice with wings, but bats are not even closely related to mice. As a matter of fact, bats are in a category all their own: Chiroptera (which means “hand wing”). There is nothing else on this planet like them. And, just because I love this fact, believe it or not almost one-quarter of all mammal species are species of bats! That’s right. Scientists have identified approximately 4000 species of mammals around the world, and about 1000 of these are species of bats. That should give us all an idea of just how important they are.

What about rabies? Any mammal can get rabies. Rabies is a virus that is tranmitted through saliva, usually from a bite. In general, the odds of a bat having rabies is set at less than one half of one percent. You are more likely to get food poisoning at a church picnic. That said, there are areas that do have higher incidents of rabies in bats. The last time I checked, New York listed it as 8%. Rabies testing requires the testing of brain tissue, which is only possible after the animal is deceased, so it’s not like a healthy animal will be released if its test is proven negative.

So how do you know if the bat is sick and should be sent for testing? Usually when bats get rabies, they exhibit a passive form of the disease. In other words, they do not become aggressive and charge at you, foaming at the mouth. If you encounter a bat that is lethargic and just not acting normally, it is probably sick. Such bats should be sent for testing.

With the cataclysmic decline of our most common bats these days, I think each of us should think twice when we encounter a bat. Don’t handle it. Don’t squash it with a broom. Help it leave your house safely. Bats have important roles to play in our ecosystems, even here in the Adirondacks. We should do everything we can to help those that remain survive.

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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.





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