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Flying Colors: More Than a Halloween Symbol, Bats are Important for the Ecosystem

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Flying Colors is a sponsored column on the hobby of backyard bird feeding written by Michael Zuiker, owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited store at the Lee Harrison Shopping Center. Visit the store at 2437 N. Harrison Street or call 703-241-3988.

As Halloween approaches, many people are taking time to learn about one of the holiday’s well-known icons and one of nature’s most misunderstood creatures: bats.

A lot of people do not understand the useful role bats play in helping control insect populations. Most of the myths about bats have created such fear that the topic of bat conservation is rarely discussed.

They do not drive around in fancy cars and have really cool, destructive gadgets. They also don’t have super hero friends. Although humans if they change some of their bad habits, could be those superheroes.

They do not fly into your hair. More than likely they fly near you when you are outside because you are attracting flying insects- which they love. On average one bat can consume 600 to 1,000 insects an hour. Over the course of the night, that would equate to 6,000-8,000 flying insects including mosquitos. They also eat coach roaches, beetles and flies.

Bats have vision, but it is very limited. They navigate at night and find their prey through a process call “Echolocation.” Think of it as a sophisticated type of sonar. Echolocation uses sound waves to determine where objects are in space. Bats use this to navigate and find food in the dark.

To echolocate, bats send out sounds waves from their mouth or nose.   When these sound waves hit an object, such as an insect, they produce echoes. The bats follow those echoes for a tasty meal. Some species of insects have developed a false echo that when emitted, will misdirect the bat and allow the insect to escape.

Bats are the only flying mammal on the planet. Air Force-funded projects have been created to learn how the wing motion and structure work on these mammals in an effort to create better flying machines.

There are 16 different species of bats in Virginia. Three of these species of bats, Virginia Big-Eared, Gray and Indiana are federally endangered. The Rafinesque’s bat is state endangered. The Big Brown Bat, Evening Bat and Little Brown Bat are three common species you could see at night. These three are the most likely to take up residence in a building.

If a bat is found indoors with people, the VA Department of Health recommends capturing the bat and having it tested for rabies. While less than half of 1 percent of all bats actually carry rabies, this is a time of caution. If you must handle the bat in any way, heavy gloves should be worn. But it would be better to contact a professional to help with the safe removal of the bat.

In recent years, significant populations of several hibernating bat species have declined. The cause of death is connected to Geomyces destructans, a cold temperature-loving white fungus, commonly known as White-nose Syndrome (WNS). Little Brown and Northern Long-eared Bats appear to be the species hardest hit.

WNS has been reported in 19 states in the U.S. and four Canadian provinces. It is believed that infected bats are depleting their fat reserves more quickly during hibernation, awaking more often and/or for longer periods of time. The fungus spreads across the wings causing scarring and, in the worst case, complete holes.

Secondarily, the fungus agitates the bats during hibernation causing them to wake thus expending energy. With no food source to be had during the winter, bats must rely on their fat reserves to make it through. The smallest species are most at risk because they simply are not large enough to store enough fat to last the winter.

What can be done to help? The Organization for Bat Conservation (OBC) suggests building or buying a bat box to provide roosting sites. They also suggest planting moth-attracting wildflowers to give bats an additional food source. Also, leave up dead or dying trees, as long as it is safe, to provide bats with natural shelters.

The OBC, in conjunction with Wild Birds Unlimited, has developed a bat box that meets OBC specifications and provides the features that successfully attract bats. In addition, a portion of the sales from each OBC bat box goes to OBC for bat research, rescue and public education.

These are truly amazing and beneficial creatures. The more people know about bats, the less frightening they are. If you have questions about bats, bat conservation and/or attracting bats to your yard, visit Wild Birds Unlimited, in your area.

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