By Thompson Tomaszewski, Lead Naturalist/Environmental Educator
Picture this: it’s 10:30 pm. You’re sitting comfortably near an open, still body of water. Behind you, dark trees stretch their limbs upwards towards the Milky Way, which you can see sparkling in the clear night sky. You breathe in, relaxed by the cool evening Adirondack air.
In this place, surrounded by air and trees and water, what do you hear? What draws your focus?
For many visitors to and residents of the park, some obvious answers surface. They hear the light breeze rustling the needles of neighboring pines, the low hum of a mosquito, or the splash of a fish finding its dinner.
For some of us, we hear the distant call of the iconic Common Loon (Gavia immer), the soft chirp of crickets, or the croak of a green frog (Rana clamitans).
To me, these sounds are usually ignored. I push them from my mind, and focus on a sound that most people have heard, but never noticed before: bat wings.
How many of you have seen bats in your backyard, swooping and spinning through the air chomping on insects? Chances are, most of you have at one time or another. Bats of the Adirondacks usually roost (settle in to sleep/rest) in forested areas: here, they have lots of nooks and crannies to hide in during the daylight hours. They are well camouflaged against bark and old, dried leaves by their brown fur and dark leathery wings.
While some bats venture to your yard at night in search of those pesky garden beetles and the moths circling your porch light, many more make their way towards the nearest wetland.
What do wetlands have that bats love? BUGS! And lots of ‘em.
Since many insects lay eggs in still water, wetlands act as nature’s buffet for insectivorous bats. Next time you’re by the water’s edge late at night, keep your eyes and ears peeled for our flying friends! You can usually
hear the faint flutter of their wings, and if you look to the lightest part of the sky (or shine a flashlight towards the forest edge) you may be lucky enough to see their small silhouettes tumbling through the clouds of bugs.
You may be asking yourself, “Why should I endure the masses of biting insects during our hot Adirondack summers just to see disease-ridden bats?” The answer to this question is not a simple one, but, as a passionate bat educator, I will do my best to tell you.
First off, bats (both globally and in the Adirondacks) are not disease-ridden. I know, I know, you’ve all been told that bats have rabies. If there’s a bat in your house, that means it has rabies. If a bat is awake during the day, that means it has rabies. If a bat is squeaking through the night, it has rabies. Right?
Wrong. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), less than 6% of all bats tested in the U.S. actually have rabies. Domestic dogs and foxes are more likely to be infected with rabies than your average bat. The misconception that all bats are “disease-ridden” has caused the general public to lose interest in and sympathy for bats and their declining populations. If you see a bat in your house, chances are the bat is simply lost. Little-brown bats (Myotis lucifugus) can squeeze through openings as small as ½ inch in diameter, so it’s pretty easy for them to wind up in homes, attics, barns, and garages due to their exploratory nature. That bat you find in your bedroom probably doesn’t want to be there any more than you want it there!
If you see a bat that is active during the day, chances are it was disturbed from its roosting site, similarly to you waking at 2 in the morning to your neighbor’s car alarm. Bats don’t just sleep all day long; they also socialize (believe it or not, bats are incredibly social animals), groom themselves, provide care for their young, and occasionally get a bite to eat.
If you hear bats squeaking and chittering through the night, it means they are socializing. While bat echolocation calls are inaudible to human ears due to their high frequency, their social calls can sound similar to mice (click here for a video of a little-brown bat making noise).
Now that I’ve (hopefully) changed your mind about bats being dangerously rabid, let’s talk about how helpful they are to your backyard.
Our native little-brown bat can eat up to 600 insects per hour. Remember how I mentioned that bats are incredibly social animals? In the Adirondacks, they can be found in colonies of about 500 individuals (although in Bracken Cave, Texas, the world’s largest bat colony is home to millions of individuals).
Each night, a colony of little-brown bats can consume a minimum of 900,000 insects! Keep in mind that there are many colonies of these helpful critters throughout our 6-million-acre park and that there are nine
species of insect-eating bat in the ‘dacks. When you do the math, bats are responsible for consuming millions of bugs nightly and save the U.S. agricultural industry an estimated $3.8 billion annually in reduced pesticide use and crop damage. Imagine how much more bug dope you would need without them!
As hard as it may be to ignore the call of the loon and the persistent nature of our biting insects, I encourage you to focus your attention on our underappreciated friends of the night next time you’re sitting at a marshy edge watching the sunset. Stick around for about 30 minutes after your view disappears behind mountains, and a whole new world will emerge.
If you’re curious about bats and their relationship with moths (one of their favorite food sources), check out this podcast!
Stay tuned for the announcement of our fall evening bat walks at the VIC, and join us on September 8th for our next Build Your Own Bat Box workshop (click here to register)!