CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As kids, we threw rocks into the night sky, trying to interest the bats flying above our heads into swooping down, sonar-guided, within our reach. My mom would admonish us and say that bats were bad and we shouldn't fool around with them.
Now, as a gardener, I have become a fan of those creepy black creatures again. In a single night, one bat can consume thousands of mosquitoes, as well as other pests that harm our favorite plants.
I received an email from the National Home Gardening Club about bats that directed me to a site where I can buy a bat house.
Yes, a bat house. I've seen them before, but have never purchased one. Do they work? Any bat lovers out there who have "bat-chelor pads" (I stole that from the website!) in their yards?
It seems the small, single-chambered Bat Bungalow ($425.73 at www.backyardwildlife.com) is perfect for small groups of males (hence the "bat-chelor pad" reference). Free garden help is hard to come by, so why not attract these pest-eating friends. Instructions suggest placing it in the sun about 12 to 15 feet above the ground.
Paul D. Curtis, of the natural resources department at Cornell University, wrote an article that put me at ease with the whole rabies/bat thing. (Mom's words echo to this day -- "You'll get rabies from bats!")
Curtis said many residents wish to eliminate these winged mammals because they can infect humans or pets with rabies. However -- only a small proportion (less than 1 percent) of bats are rabid. Even if rabies is confirmed from one bat in a colony, most of the remaining animals will be healthy.
Symptoms of rabid bats include erratic flight, activity during the daytime, and weakness or paralysis causing the bat to fall from its roost. Most human exposure to rabies occurs when people attempt to help grounded bats. If sick or dead bats are found, contact a local public health agency immediately. Don't touch dead or sickly bats.
Curtis points out that bats are the only mammals that actually fly. Their highly developed echolocation system allows them to capture flying insects at night, either with their mouth, wings or tail membranes. They forage from about an hour after sunset to about an hour before sunrise, stopping to rest occasionally under open porches, eaves, trees or other overhanging structures.
Bats spend their days roosting in a semitorpid state. Often bats choose to roost in the attic or walls of occupied dwellings, posing problems for property owners. Most colonies of bats go unnoticed, but they may become a nuisance due to their vocalization and activity, or odors and stains from urine, feces and rejected food.
No pesticides are registered for lethal control of bats in the United States. Chemical controls may actually increase bat rabies risks by producing sick individuals, or by driving bats from attics into living areas.