Let's Go Batty for #Batweek

Many species can be found in Will County, and they play a key environmental role

|  Story by Meghan McMahon |

October 24 marks the beginning of Bat Week, and it’s no surprise that this annual celebration of all things bats coincides with the Halloween season.

Bats and Halloween are intrinsically linked in American culture, so Bat Conservation International decided there was no better time than Halloween to celebrate and raise awareness about bats and their crucial role in the ecosystem.

The world needs bats, but their significance has nothing to do with this treasured American holiday. Here in Will County, bats play an important role by consuming huge quantities of insects, helping to keep their populations in check. In fact, a bat can consume up to its body weight in insects every night, Bat Conservation International reports.

Elsewhere in the world, bats do important work pollinating crops. More than 300 kinds of fruit depend on bats for pollination, including avocados, bananas and mangoes, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. And chocolate, too, requires bats for production, because bats help spread the seeds of the cacao plant, which is the main ingredient in chocolate.

 

Bats around the world and close to home

Big brown bats at Laughton Preserve (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

The world is home to more than 1,400 species of bats, which is almost 20 percent of all the mammal species on Earth, Bat Conservation International reports. The smallest bat in the world is the tiny bumblebee bat, which weighs less than a penny, while the biggest bats are flying foxes, with wingspans of up to 6 feet.

Of the 1,400 species of bats in the world, 12 live in Illinois, and eight are known to inhabit the forest preserves in Will County: the big brown bat, eastern red bat, evening bat, hoary bat, little brown bat, northern long-eared bat, silver-haired bat and tri-colored bat.

A number of the preserves are popular roosting spots for bats, particularly those close to water. While you can't see them at night when they come out to play — because the preserves close at sunset — they often can be seen during the day hanging from above. That is, if you know where to look.

 

The barn at Riverview Farmstead Preserve is a favorite spot for several bat species and is one of the locations in the preserves where the Forest Preserve District does bat monitoring. Another popular roosting spot for bats is Hammel Woods – Route 59 Access. A shelter at the preserve was once a popular picnic spot, but it has been closed for rentals for several years because a colony of bats took up residence and was resistant to relocating to a bat house installed nearby. 

Bats are in trouble

Photo by Glen Buckner

Like many wildlife species, bats face numerous threats to their survival. Among the threats to bats are habitat loss, disease, climate change, invasive species and hunting, Bat Conservation International reports.

Locally, the biggest threat to bats is white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that affects hibernating bat species, according to the U.S Geological Survey. White-nose syndrome was first identified in the winter of 2007-2008, and since then millions of bats in 33 states and parts of Canada have died from the disease. 

White-nose syndrome is caused by a fungus that thrives in cold, humid conditions like the caves and mines bats use for hibernating. You can help prevent white-nose syndrome by staying out of bat hibernation sites and decontaminating any clothing or gear you have worn while visiting sites where bats may be hibernating, Bat Conservation International reports. In addition, always contact a local health or wildlife agency if you find a sick or injured bat. Never touch wild bats.

If you’re looking for something you can do close to home to help bat populations, consider installing a bat box in your yard. It will provide a good roosting spot and also be a natural way to control mosquitoes in your yard

Being a good citizen helps too. Don’t pollute local steams and wetlands, because clean water sources are a good foraging spot for bats, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service urges. And reducing pesticide use in your yard helps because bats that live locally need insects for their survival. Bats are the primary predators of many pesky insects we hate, and minimizing pesticide use helps ensure a steady food supply for bats.

Bat myths busted

Photo via Shutterstock

Bats get a bit of a bum rap from humans, and a lot of the information that people widely believe to be true is misinformation. At the top of the list: Bats aren’t blind. All bats can see, and some bats can see very well. In fact, some bats have better vision than humans. The myth that they can’t see may stem from the fact that they don’t rely on their vision to navigate. Instead, they use echolocation. 

And maybe you know someone who knows someone who knows someone who once had a bat fly into their hair and get stuck. It’s not impossible, but it is improbable. Why? Because bats’ echolocation is very precise, so they can fly with such precision that they are unlikely to run into things, according to National Geographic.  

The link between bats and Halloween may be because of vampire bats. While there are vampire bats that drink blood, they live far from here, in Central and South America, and they mainly drink blood from cattle, although they have been known to bite humans from time to time, National Geographic reports. Even so, they usually only drink about a spoonful of blood when they feed. And of the hundreds of bat species in the world, only three are vampire bats.

One last bat myth we can bust: Not all bats have rabies. In fact, less than 1 percent of bats in the wild have rabies, according to the National Park Service. However, bats that come into contact with humans or act strangely are 10 times more likely to have rabies. If there's any chance you've come into contact with bat saliva, from a scratch, bite or even sleeping in a room where a bat is found, you should contact your medical provider immediately to see if a medical evaluation is needed, the park service advises.

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(Lead image by Glenn P. Knoblock)

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