Story by Barbara Loveless
Photos by Barbara Loveless and Cindy Myers
“De bat – he rat got wings – all de children know dat”
December 16, 2014 (San Diego’s East County) - And so goes the chiroptera-phobic Carly Simon song from the 1970s. But all the half-dozen or so children – and about that many adults –who attended “Batty for Bats” at Lakeside River Park Conservancy know that bats are not even closely related to rats and their ilk. They’re more closely related to … you might want to sit down … well, us!
That is just some of what we learned at this presentation on November 22 by Project Wildlife volunteer and “bat team” member Cindy Myers. You may have seen pictures circulating on social media sites of baby flying foxes wrapped up in snuggly blankets and sucking on pacifiers, looking very much like burrito-wrapped Chihuahua puppies. Very high on the “Awwwww” factor. It gladdens my heart that this mammalian order, chiroptera, meaning
“hand wing,” seems to slowly be casting off centuries-old superstitions and untruths.
Education and activism are now helping us to understand the critical role bats play in the environment, and that was just part of Myers’ message that she shared along with two rescued Mexican free-tailed bats. Here are some of the many facts she presented about these amazing creatures of the night:
- Bats are the second most diverse mammalian order after rodents, with over 1,300 species. (But remember, BATS ARE NOT RODENTS!) In fact, bats make up almost one-quarter of the world’s mammal species!
- If you notice your hummingbird nectar disappearing overnight, you do not have monster, night-active hummingbirds. You might instead be getting visits from a very thirsty nectar-feeding bat species, the Mexican long-tongued bat, that lives in San Diego County and the Southwest U.S.
- The Western mastiff bat is the largest bat species in U.S. and lives in San Diego, too! No special equipment is needed to hear the Western mastiff. They echolocate at a frequency low enough for us to hear, like a radar ping.
- The Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas is the largest urban bat colony on earth. 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats live there and emerge in their massive numbers on summer evenings. Citizens were at first terrified, but through the work of Bat Conservation International, this colony now brings in $8-10 million a year in tourism!
- Every summer night at Bracken Cave (between Austin and San Antonio, Texas), special visitors can witness what Myers calls “one of the world’s great wildlife spectacles.” It’s the largest aggregation of wild mammals on earth, with 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats emerging to feed on 200 tons (TONS!) of insects per night! The bats fly up to 10,000 feet to intercept and forage on migrating moths, which are on their way to forage our farmers’ crops. In fact, according to a recent USGS study, "The value of the pest-control services to agriculture provided by bats in the U.S. alone range from a low of $3.7 billion to a high of $53 billion a year.” http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=2743#.VIaC-cnZdJQ
- Nectar and fruit-eating bats help pollinate and propagate yummy fruit and plants we love: avocados, bananas, peaches, cacao (chocolate!), and agave (tequila!), just to name a few.
- Don’t you hate all those pesky gnats and mosquitos? Then don’t hate bats because just one of the little guys can eat 1,000 mosquito-sized insects in one hour!
- And this next fact is just sweet: Big brown bat pups and red bat pups…purr.
Habitat loss and destruction, along with persistent myths and misconceptions, are contributing to the decline of bat species worldwide. As a fellow bat-lover, I plead with you to take action to protect our 22 San Diego species by following Myers’ recommendations:
- Don’t trim your tall dried palm fronds in spring or summer. Nine species of bats, including Western yellow bats, roost there year round and have their maternity colony there in summer. Orioles begin nesting there in the spring. Adult bats can fly away if disturbed, but the babies cannot. If there’s an active nest or bat roost, it may also be illegal to disturb them as many bird and bat species are protected.
- Never rescue or otherwise handle a bat (dead or alive) with your bare hands. Doing so may not only expose you to rabies (spread through saliva), it will also be an automatic death sentence for a living bat. The Department of Health must euthanize any bat that has had direct human or pet contact because they need to get a sample of the bat’s brain tissue to test for rabies. Using leather gloves, contain the animal with a box or towel; then call Project Wildlife at 619-225-WILD (9453) for assistance. C’mon people, put the rabies thing into perspective: One or two people have died per year from bat rabies in the U.S. since the 1950s; many more die of lightning strikes or bee stings.
- If our bats haven’t quite gobbled up all your pesky flying insects and you feel the need to put up fly paper, wrap it with a cone of chicken wire so that bats won’t fly into it and get stuck. And don’t use those glue traps for rodents. Pests and non-pests (bats) get stuck and die a slow and cruel death.
- Do you have a swimming pool or large pond that bats might favor swooping over for a little insect snack? Get a Frog Log for under $20 that serves as an emergency escape route for bats and other small critters. Open water sources are very important for bats, but they need a way to escape if they accidentally land in your pool.
- And finally, do many bird and bat species a favor by keeping Kitty indoors. Always. It’s better for the cat, too.
Now, let’s pour ourselves a shot of fine tequila and make a toast to the noble mammal that helps make agave plants happen: the bat.
Lakeside River Park Conservancy (lakesideriverpark.org) provides educational, recreational, and cultural opportunities at its location on the beautiful San Diego River in Lakeside. Besides “Batty for Bats,” the Conservancy holds other workshops, such as fire safety and prevention, and interpretive nature walks. Special thanks to Danielle Melody of the Conservancy for organizing “Batty for Bats,” and to Cindy Myers of Project Wildlife for sharing such critical information about bats with us.