The Understory: Befriend a Bat
At the end of August, standing in a clear field lit by the dim glow of the farewell sun, Debra Boyer raises her right arm above her head. Up there in the tucked folds of a hand towel and gently cupped in its gloved grip, a large, juvenile brown bat flutters around.
The puppy had been found abandoned on the ground about 5 weeks earlier, too thin and too weak to return to his dormitory. Malnutrition sets in quickly for baby bats like this; Based on the puppy’s depressed behavior when rescuers discovered them, they had already undergone at least 24 hours of separation from their mother.
It was in this terrible moment of atrophy that the puppy was taken to the Pennsylvania Bat Rescue for rehabilitation.
The Pennsylvania Bat Rescue is a small, nonprofit organization, operating out of the home of President and Founder Steph Stronsick. Every summer, from June to August, Stronsick’s converted bat nursery garage is inundated with orphaned baby bats.
It is an endless job for the bat surrogate as the puppies need to be fed every 2-3 hours. But once the puppies reach the age to fly – around 8-10 weeks old – Stronsick’s labor of love comes to a rewarding end with the release of his baby bats.
Perched at the end of her own rehabilitation journey, the young large brown bat pauses, breathing in the coolness of twilight. Collected from a distance, a small crowd of onlookers waits, holding their breath. Then, pushed by the twilight, the young bat takes off for the first time in the open.
They fly low at first, just above the crowd of “Oohs!” and “Ah! Before hovering toward the shady tree line, out of sight.
It was one of five juvenile bats released at The Nature Place in late August. With the care provided by the Pennsylvania Bat Rescue, they all survived one of the many dangers faced by native bats in Pennsylvania.
Bats are a group of mammals belonging to the order Chiroptera, from the Greek cheir meaning “hand” and pteron meaning “wing”. Fittingly, bats are the only mammal on Earth capable of true flight using skin webbed wings constructed from outstretched arm bones and hands; literally, bats fly clapping their hands!
Sadly, these unique inhabitants of the night sky have long been misunderstood, and even vilified, by people. People feared and persecuted bats because they are dirty, rabid carriers, bloodsuckers, “rats with wings”. But this harsh criticism is riddled with errors, overwhelming the bats with a slanderous reputation.
There are 1,400 species of bats, only three of which suck blood (and none of these bats live in the United States). No matter what their diet – be it blood, insects, nectar, or fruit – bats take hygiene seriously and spend a good part of their day grooming and grooming themselves. to clean up.
Contrary to popular belief, most bats do not carry rabies; in fact, less than 1% of bats worldwide carry the disease. You are much more likely to contract rabies from a dog or a raccoon than from a bat!
Additionally, bat disease cases that spread in human populations are often stimulated by human activities that destroy and encroach on bat habitat, forcing increased interactions between wild bat populations. , livestock and humans. We must recognize the repercussions of our own actions when we stress contact with wildlife and reconsider our role in preserving peaceful coexistence.
Bats, like most wildlife, prefer to be left alone and will avoid humans. When left on their own, bats are harmless and, more importantly, priceless threads intertwined in the web of earthly life.
Under the cover of night (while we sleep under the covers of our beds), the bats are busy. Insectivorous bats feast on flying bugs, many of which are agricultural pests. In fact, American farmers save an estimated $ 23 billion each year from the efforts of insectivorous bats, whose appetites reduce crop damage and limit the need for pesticides.
Nectar-feeding bats are responsible for pollinating a wide variety of plants, including those used commercially by people such as balsa wood, cloves, and agave – the plant whose juices are fermented and distilled to create tequila! Hi!
Fruit bats play a critical role in seed propagation, which is increasingly needed in tropical climates where deforestation threatens to destroy large swathes of rainforest. Bat droppings, rich in seeds from their fruit-rich diet, help replenish lost forests. In cleared areas, seeds left by bats can represent up to 95% of the first new growth.
Despite the valuable role bats play in natural ecosystems, bat populations around the world are struggling. In the United States, more than half of bat species are either in severe decline or classified as threatened.
The incentive for this fall is a perfect storm of stressors, including climate change, human persecution, the expansion of wind power, emerging diseases like white-nose syndrome and habitat destruction.
Mature forests are increasingly under siege as people cut down trees for profit or to make room for other land uses, from agriculture to residential development. But many North American bat species depend on these same forests for hunting and shelter. The Indiana bat, a federally threatened species, for example, sleeps in cavities created by loosely barked trees, like hickory shagbark, during the hottest months of the year.
Land conversion can destroy or fragment bat habitat, disrupting the migration routes and habitat corridors that bats use to access new areas in search of food, shelter or habitat. warmer climates.
Bats also use caves and reuse abandoned mines as daytime roosting habitat or as a hibernaculum – a winter shelter where bat colonies congregate when temperatures are dangerously freezing and insect prey is over. limited. Inappropriate tourism, vandalism, and the collapse or backfilling of abandoned mines ruin hibernacula, forcing bats out or even disturbing them in the dead of winter, with dire consequences.
Just as we are the source of bat conflicts, we also have the help of power.
Here in the Commonwealth, the Pennsylvania Bat Rescue field rehabilitation work is complemented by the habitat protection efforts of state agencies and organizations like Berks Nature.
When the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) set out to understand the summer behavior of bats in Indiana, they fitted the bats with radio transmitters, which then took them to the Oley Hills in County of Berks. Here, nestled in a vast expanse of mature forest, herbaceous wet meadows, and sheltered networks of pristine watersheds, Indiana’s largest bat maternity colony in Pennsylvania has been discovered.
To support this sensitive Indiana bat population, PGC introduced Berks Nature to the landowners housing this colony. Their goal: to permanently protect this diverse mosaic of environments and ensure that the landscape endures as suitable habitat for the Indiana Bat in perpetuity, regardless of its federal status under the Species Act. endangered.
Between 2017 and 2018, after five years of persistence, two conservation easements covering 118 acres of wildlife habitat were established, securing in perpetuity the rich mosaic of mixed deciduous forests, wetlands and streams that bats of Oley’s Indiana call them home.
This natural refuge is more than Indiana bats. A population of Little Brown Bats, a species of special concern in Pennsylvania, also finds refuge here by mingling with the Indiana bat colony. Additionally, the federally threatened Marsh Turtle also takes shelter comfortably in the soggy meadows and wooded wetlands found here.
In these special easements, not only is development limited, but any action that could harm or significantly interfere with the ability of the land to support the Indiana Bat (or the Marsh Turtle) is prohibited.
As danger looms on all sides, securing a secure future for bats will require longer-term work and investment in conservation. Demonstrations of this commitment can already be seen across Pennsylvania.
In December 2020, the PGC and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources began implementing a habitat conservation plan for the Indiana bat and the endangered northern bat. by the federal government on 3.8 million acres of public forest; and each year, the Pennsylvania Bat Rescue rehabilitates approximately 250 to 300 bats.
Now, after generations of misguided mistrust and fear, we have the opportunity to change the narrative, joining the bats not as fighters but as allies. More than ever, bats need our friendship.
Make friends with a bat today!
- Install a bat house on your property! Visit the PA Bat Rescue website (https://pabatrescue.org/bat-houses) to download tips for building your own DIY bat house.
- Incorporate native plant species into your landscaping. These plants will attract more insects than the exotic varieties, which bats love to eat. Once you open the insect buffet, the bats will line up to have fun!
Minimize the use of chemical pesticides. Remember, bats eat insects. When you poison annoying insects, you can also accidentally poison bats.