(WHTM) It’s the week to celebrate some of the most important, yet underappreciated, indeed maligned, creatures on the planet- the order Chiroptera, or bats. The word Chiroptera comes from the Greek cheir (hand) and pteron (wing), and bats are indeed the only mammals with working wings, who can actually fly. (Flying squirrels can only glide, though they do a pretty good job of it.)
Bat Appreciation Week (or just Bat Week to some) was created in the early 2000s by Bat Conservation International, which is dedicated to preventing bat extinctions. Bat numbers are declining worldwide-mostly due to humans. They lose habitat to farming and development. Introduced diseases can decimate bat populations; according to a 2021 USGS study White-nosed syndrome, a fungal infection that somehow traveled from Europe to America, has caused a 90 percent drop in the northern long-eared, little brown and tri-colored bat populations in less than 10 years. A new danger is wind turbines-like birds, bats are being killed when they hit turbine blades.
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But perhaps the biggest dangers to bats are the myths-bats are nasty flying rodents (untrue on both the nasty and rodent parts), bats are trying to fly in our hair (if a bat flies by you, it’s probably chasing a bug), they’re all vampires (there’s only 3 species of vampire bats in the world total), they’re ugly and dirty (they actually groom regularly, and ugly is in the eye of the beholder) and they all carry rabies (they can carry rabies, but they’re no worse or better in that regard than any other mammal). And of course, most bats work the night shift, which makes them harder to see, makes them mysterious, makes them scary-and humans tend to do scary things to scary things.
In fact, we’d be in bad shape without bats. Most species of bats eat insects-billions of tons of them every year. Without them, a lot of crops would be devoured by bugs, and food costs would skyrocket either because of scarcity, or the added cost of insecticide. Other bats eat nectar and pollen, helping to pollinate plants in the process. Some eat fruit, spreading seeds to germinate. So, bats both save our crops and help them grow in the first place.
But once bat numbers go down, it’s hard to get them to come back up. Bats live long lives-many can live up to 20 years, some reach 30, and the record-setter, a bat from Siberia, lived to 41. But their rate of reproduction is slow; a female bat will usually produce just one litter of 1-2 pups each year. So it takes a long time to repopulate once the population crashes.
There are organizations working to help and protect bats. Some work at the national or international level, while others help bats close to home. Locally Raven Ridge Wildlife Center has been taking care of bats for years, and one volunteer, Rosemarie Curcio, is their resident bat expert. We’ve done several stories with her about taking care of the bats, and the problems bats can face.
Feeding baby bats is not a job for people who like to get their sleep:
With the coming of lanternflies, bats are facing a new threat-lanternfly tape:
Climate change has also had an impact on bat populations. Warm weather hit particularly hard in the winter of 2021-2022:
So what can you do to help bats? Here are a few suggestions:
First and foremost, learn about the bats in your area (and unlearn the myths.)
Limit the use of pesticides and herbicides.
Turn off unnecessary lights-bats do their jobs better without light pollution.
If for some reason you find yourself in an area where bats are hibernating, decontaminate your clothing to avoid spreading white-nose syndrome to other locations.
Avoid disturbing them when they’re hibernating (this also helps reduce the spread of WNS.)
Provide bats with shelter by setting up a bat house. There are plans online for do-it-yourselfers, or if you’re one of those persons who bends two nails out of three, you can buy one premade.