When I think of bats, I picture the large, black vampire bats with fangs that hang sleeping upside down from a belfry wrapped up in their wings like a cocoon. As night falls, they yawn and stretch out their wings creating a long, thin, black webbed structure and then glide silently through the dark air, spooking and scaring passersby with their teeny shrieks and glowing eyes.
Maybe this is just my vision since Halloween weekend is still top of mind - and because there are so many books and movies out about vampires of late. But since joining Jessica Hickey, a Davey Resource Group project manager and biologist, on a research mission in West Virginia this summer, and seeing pictures of a bat she was searching for - the small, brownish-grey, and endangered Indiana bat, which is just 3 inches long and weighs less than half an ounce - I can't believe I ever thought bats were scary. "Having a bat in your backyard is wonderful," Hickey told me.
Many times, when trees need removed in a large scale, it's protocol to call in an expert to assess various animal populations to ensure certain species or nests aren't being damaged in the process. In this particular case, a client needed to put in a new gas line across 110 miles starting in Monroeville, Pa. and going through to Charleston, W. Va.
Luckily for Davey, we have Hickey, who is on a short list of experts with permits for handling the specific bat that was of concern on this project - the endangered Indiana bat.
So for two and a half months, three two-person crews covered the West Virginia portion looking for bats. (Hickey oversaw both state assessments of the bat, but personally joined the West Virginia crews.) I joined them for a few days, and it was interesting to say the least.
We would start at dusk, putting up bat nets in suitable areas. Then we sat in camp chairs, checking the nets every 10 minutes for the presence of bats. When we caught one, we would pull it out, identify, weigh and measure it and release it back into the night sky. Five hours later, we would call it a night. If it rained - since bats don't usually fly in the rain - we'd have to stay vigilant a bit longer. In some cases, our work night wasn't done until 3 or 4 a.m.
Of the 500 bats Hickey's teams caught and safely released in West Virginia and the 900 bats they caught and safely released in Pennsylvania - seven different species in total - no Indiana bats were present. If she were to find one of the rare and endangered species, she would have had to put a radio transmitter on the animal to determine where it was roosting, and then, if it was female, identify the maternity roost and count the population at that particular roost site. Then, she'd map the tree, and if it was scheduled to be cleared, in some cases gas lines may have to be re-routed in order to prevent harming an endangered species.
"We found no Indiana bats," Hickey confirmed. "I spoke to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and no one was finding Indiana bats in any large scale in several states. This is actually very worrisome because despite the temporary increase in the population due to habitat protection, recent declines are occurring based on other factors."
White Nose Syndrome is the most devastating of these "other factors" and affects all northeast and Midwest cave-dwelling bat populations, Hickey explains. New York for instance has been wiped out of most bat populations as a result of this Syndrome, which is from a fungus that originated from Europe and transferred to our caves through spelunking. The state is trying to bring back the Indiana bat population and all other states are trying to protect their bats from infection.
The main reason? While bats - or at least the vampire bats in my head - seem scary, they are actually essential to the natural balance of things. Almost all the bats in the U.S. for instance are insectivores, meaning they keep insect populations in check. One bat can eat more than 3,000 mosquito-sized insects in one night. An established bat population for a farmer, for instance, could mean not having to use pesticides on crops, Hickey explains. In New York, increase pesticide usage has been necessary to control insect populations as a result of bat population decline. "Bats are a valuable resource," Hickey says.
What can homeowners do to support the bat populations in their regions? Since bats tend to roost in dead or dying large trees with exfoliating bark, crevices, cracks, hollows and deadwood, Hickey says that when possible, homeowners should only have dead or dying trees removed between November and March to ensure they aren't destroying any bat roosts.
Also, consider installing a bat house in your backyard. "But don't get discouraged if you don't have new tenants right away," Hickey says. "Like some people, bats can be picky and not eager to choose the first house they see. The Indiana bat, in particular, is very selective. It roosts only in a certain type of habitat or tree. Approximately 85 percent of these bats winter in only seven caves or mines, with nearly one-half of the world's population being found in only two caves."
Sadly, since 1967, the Indiana bat population has been cut in half. But habitat protection and recovery efforts have produced some encouraging signs, including a population increase in the last few years.
For more information on bats, please visit Bat Conservation International.