Just as dusk hushes the valley into deepening sepia tones, the ragged flight of little night mammals can be seen against the darkening sky: bats coming out for their evening feast of insects. The silhouetted forms happily snapping up bugs before your eyes could be Little Brown Bats, Big Brown Bats or Townsend’s Big-eared Bats, all of which call the area around Nakusp home.
Juliet Craig, project biologist with the Kootenay Bat Project, recently opened up the world of bats to a crowd gathered just before dark at the Fauquier Community Hall.
Aptly titled “the Wonderful World of Bats,” Craig’s lecture was aided by Mike Sarell, another biologist with inside info on the world of the flying mammals, as well as a couple very knowledgable young folks in the audience who had obviously done some delving of their own before coming to the lecture.
Chiroptera, the bat order, is distinct from Rodentia, so the little creatures are not some crazy crepuscular winged mouse. Bats can be as small as a thumbnail (the Bumblebee bat) or have a six foot wingspan, like the Flying Fox. Bat biologists seem very literal-minded when it comes to naming the little critters.
Chiropterans are their own animal, one that has a bad rap, Craig tried to convince the bat-loving crowd. She pointed to the movie “Contagion” as an example of bats being seen as dirty disease vectors.
Once you get to know them, she said, they’re really very nice. For one thing, bats don’t have explosive population growth like rodents. Bats give birth to one or two pups per year.
They’re also very nice because one bat can eat 600 mosquitoes in an hour, fuelling their high metabolic rate as well as clearing the skies of bloodsuckers.
And although they have had a long association with vampires, longer than Hollywood, most bats don’t drink blood. There is one, the Vampire Bat of Central and South America that feeds off chicken and cow blood, but generally they don’t kill the cows or chickens. In fact, the anti-coagulent found in their saliva has been used medically to help people.
Bats also have a long-time association with rabies, which they can contract and carry. Only about five to ten per cent of harvested bats have rabies, and even though the number is small and comes from a non-representative sample of bats, it is always a good idea not to handle bats, just in case. Rabies, by the way, is treated with a series of injections, and is rumoured to be awfully painful, although better than dying while foaming at the mouth.
One young participant asked why bats hang upside down, a very good question. Craig said hanging upside down allows the bats to take advantage of a special niche that other animals rarely use. Mike chimed in that bats are really intelligent.
For the most part, bats either hibernate or migrate, like many Canadians. They mate in the Fall and female bats then self-impregnate in the Spring, a neat trick. Maternity colonies are formed, with each pup having a specialized sound that allows their moms to find them among thousands of pups.
Bat colonies are also full of some valuable stuff: guano, or bat poop. A small two-litre pail sells for over $20 to gardeners. B.C. doesn’t have the enormous colonies found in other parts of the world, so poop-mining is unlikely here.
Now for the bat news. Bats have suffered huge habitat loss due to human encroachment and the closure of old mines. They are also very vulnerable to insecticides as well as cats. Some misinformed people have exterminated bats, an illegal act, because they have seen them as threatening pests.
One of the biggest threats to bats is a fungus that causes White Nose Syndrome that is believed to be spreading across North America from the east coast.
One of the strangest threats comes from wind farms. Dead bats had been found around the farms, and the cause of their death was found to barotrauma, injury caused by low pressure caused by the gigantic windmill blades.
Although they don’t need to worry about taking on windmills, the Kootenay Bat Project is busy helping our little flying friends by educating the public, taking an inventory of bats and helping landowners find alternate sites if they have bats in unwanted spots. The best way to do this, and the best way to help, is to build bat houses and take part in local bat counts. If you love mosquito-free nights, get in touch with Juliet Craig.
For more, see kootenaybats.com