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Adventures with Bats

Bill Meredith

"From the palace window Bartholomew could see Mount Negatave, where the Royal Magicians lived in their secret cave, full of owls and spiders and lavender-colored bats." --Dr. Seuss, Bartholomew and the Oobleck

Our kids were still in elementary school when we moved into the old house on Main Street in 1968, so we spent a lot of summer evenings playing in the back yard. There were lots of insects around the street lights, and each evening bats would fly around feeding on them. The kids had learned about bats, both truth and fiction; in fact, even children whose fathers are not biologists know bats are the only mammals that fly, that they are valuable because they eat insects, that they sleep hanging head downward, and that if you find a sick one you shouldn’t handle it because it might carry rabies. Our kids also had picked up some of the basic bat legends about vampires… they had seen Grandpa Munster hanging head-downward in a closet on TV… and they presumed that all of the ones flying about the yard lived in the church belfry just down the street.

There actually may have been some bats in the church belfry, but in fact they were a lot closer than that. Our house had been vacant for a couple of years before we bought it, and some bats had taken up squatter’s rights in the attic. Actually, the word "squatter" probably can’t be applied to bats; they are physically incapable of squatting, because their knee joints are reversed to assist in flying and hanging upside-down. But whatever their status, they were living in the attic, and one night one of them decided to come down into the lower reaches of the house and introduce itself.

We had just gone to bed, and the kids came running in to inform us that a bat was flying about in their bedroom. They were not afraid of it; in fact, they seemed a bit disappointed that it was brown instead of lavender-colored, like the ones in Dr. Seuss’s stories. On the other hand, it took several minutes to convince my wife that it wouldn’t hide in her hair. We turned all of the upstairs lights on; that, plus the general level of excitement on the second story soon persuaded the bat to go downstairs. I proposed to prop open the front door and wait for it to fly out, but my wife was sure it would call all of its friends to come in and join the party instead, so I ended up chasing it around the living room with a butterfly net. Its sonar system made it remarkably adept at dodging the net, but after about 15 minutes it grew overconfident and careless, and I was able to snare it and escort it off the premises.

Over the next couple of years that scenario was repeated a few times, with minor variations, but eventually the bats moved out of the attic. Most of them probably moved into one of the vacant buildings on the adjacent lot, where they still live, but we had no more immediate encounters with them. My daughter must have developed a soft spot in her heart for them; a few years ago she gave me a bat house for Christmas. I dutifully hung it in a tree in the yard, but as far as I know, it has remained vacant.

Coincidence rules in my life. Early this month I noticed the bat house hanging forlornly in the tree; I hadn’t thought about bats for months. Then, the next morning, we received a phone call from a friend, informing us that she had a bat in her bedroom. Normally I don’t make house calls for such things, but this was a special case; so I armed myself with the ancient butterfly net and a pair of heavy leather gloves and prepared to do battle.

It turned out that the bat was not actually in the room. It had got into the house the night before and tried to leave through a half-open window, but got trapped between the window glass and the screen. The lady of the house had closed the window before going to bed, not knowing the bat was there; she discovered it the next morning, hanging by its toes on the screen and sleeping peacefully. There was less than an inch of space between the screen and glass, but the bat seemed comfortable and prepared to stay there. I was able to inch the window down and put a mason jar over it before it woke up; I took it outside and emptied it onto the branch of a tree. It gave at me a disgruntled look and flapped off into the nearby woods in eerie silence, probably to find a branch to hang from for the rest of the day.

According to my wife, if you see one bat, you’ve seen them all, but records show that there are actually 10 different species in Maryland. In flight, it takes an expert to tell them apart, for a novice like me they are hard to identify even with a book in my hand. I believe this one was the Little Brown Bat, one of the most common types. Its body was about three inches long, covered with gray-brown hair, and boasting an impressive mouthful of needle-like teeth. The wings were black and leathery, and when it took flight they opened to an astonishing span of 10 or 12 inches.

It is unfortunate that bats fall into that select company of creatures, including snakes and spiders, that seem to be instinctively feared by many people. It is true that they sometimes carry rabies, and for that reason they should not be handled; but in fact that disease is rare in them. Vampire bats do feed on blood, but they do not occur in the eastern United States. All of our local species are beneficial, consuming huge quantities of insects. Most of them live secretive lives, sleeping by day in caves, rock crevices or hollow trees; their lives intersect ours mainly because their insect prey are drawn to our houses by electric lights. Apart from that, they do not desire our company any more than we desire theirs.

Lest anyone should get the wrong impression from reading this column, I am not available for bat removal; if one gets in your house, do not call me. I will be playing golf, and my wife will be of no use to you in this connection.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith