In the past 6 years, the status of Canada’s bats has gone from normal to very bleak. A fungus from European bats made its way into Canada about 7 years ago. North American bats have no natural immunity or protection from the foreign fungus (Pseudogymnoascus destructans or Geomyces destructans– yeah don’t ask me to say that) that causes white-nose syndrome (WNS) and death.
White nose syndrome is devastating to bats – it develops on their wings, and enters their bodies. It somehow wakes them early from their hibernation and then they don’t have enough energy stores to survive until spring. Bats die a terrible death – from a combination of dehydration, electrolyte depletion, and starvation. Worse, it spreads in the very places they gather to hibernate. It has spread like wildfire through the caves, mines, and winter hibernating homes of bats and killed so many that three species are now endangered: the little brown bat, the northern myotis and the tri-coloured bat. Listing helps to protect them and their habitat – but since they are so susceptible to this killer and are not prolific breeders, the future is bleak.
Bats teeter on the brink due to something we’ve brought to their ecosystem – humans entering caves can be carriers so spelunking, explorers, and their fungus-tinged equipment are literally deadly to bats. This disease was first found in New York State less than a decade ago. In some areas 99% of the bat population has already died off – it’s transmitted that quickly. The monumental bat population loss affects the whole ecosystem – insects they feed on, plants affected by those insects, and owls and hawks who feed on bats.
There is a glimmer of hope which lies in the research into a bacteria that is antagonistic to the fungus that creates white-nose syndrome. If this proves successful in some situations, then the caves can be entered during hibernation and the bats can be sprayed to help them survive. Bats are the slowest reproducing mammals producing only one young a year. So many have died that it will take decades and dedicated breeding programs to have a rebound of their populations to any significant numbers – even IF this bacteria is successful.
Bats aren’t sexy – they are not like monarchs who have classrooms, families, nature clubs, and celebs working to save them. Sadly for bats, they are not traditionally ‘cute’. Instead the poor bats are often looked at with suspicion, dislike, and even fear. They are not creepy bloodsuckers – they are vastly misunderstood. While they may resemble flying field mice, they are more related to humans than mice. I think perhaps it’s a human failing (or archaic instinct) to be afraid of nocturnal creatures. Being limited in our nocturnal capabilities, we are suspicious of any creature of the night.
Bats are little miracles – in how they fly, in how they use echolocation, in how their ‘hands’ developed into wings, in how they are mammals who raise just one young a year and can live to 30 years old – and in how they eat up to 600 insects an hour! In fact they kill a number of pests that plague human crops in addition to keeping down the mosquito population. They are gentle and unobtrusive.
Learning about bats, trying to spot them at dusk, and installing a bat box are great family activities that everyone can contribute to. Human development continues to take away their habitat – so giving them a safe and reliable roost is proactive conservation. If you are handy, you can build your own bat box. It’s pretty exciting to assess your space, decide how you can help bats, install a box, and watch for activity!
Here are some tips to help you:
- Bats need three things – food (like moths, mosquitoes, grasshoppers, beetles – night flying insects), water (a near-by reliable water source can be your birdbath but they prefer a stream or pond like those in Altona Forest), and shelter (a safe, very warm roosting spot). Adding a bat box to even a small garden can meet their needs! If neighbors put up bat boxes, it increases the likelihood of drawing bats because females will use one as a maternity colony, and bachelor bats hang out together in another.
- Avoid garden pesticides which are toxic to bats and their young. If we poison what they eat, we are poisoning them. They are overwhelmed by the poisons when they are most vulnerable: when their go through their fat stores during hibernation.
- The larger bat box with multiple compartments for a number of bats seems to draw them better than small condos.
- It’s important that the wood used is not full of chemicals, preferably native species, and the inside slats need to be rough-surfaced to give bats the opportunity to cling to something.
- The two concerns most people have about inviting bats to their space are misplaced. It’s almost impossible to catch fungal lung disease from bat guano in Canada – the conditions are luckily not favourable for it’s development and spread. Bats are also not typical carriers of rabies (<1%).
- Challenge the myths – most bats have good eyesight (plus use echolocation) – and don’t want to go anywhere near your hair! If they swoop near you it’s to get at the mosquitoes or other bugs headed your way.
- Set your bat box facing south or south-east in a sunny location so that it will be warmed by the sun (7+ sun-hours each day). Having a bat-safe dark stain on the box will draw the warmth of the sun to help them stay warm.
- Bats prefer that the box be mounted between 12-25 feet up for safety from predators. The best place is on a brick wall (for radiant heat) or on a post. Trees are not the best spots since they are often shaded and too cool to suit bats.
- Bats come out of hibernation and seek safe roosts in March-April so having your bat box ready at this time of year will give you the most success
It’s in my nature to fight for the underdog. Hopefully we can help our local population: we bought a bat box and installed it. Will you?
Go ahead, go batty!
Our locally-made bat box is made of eastern cedar, stained dark, and with a small entry pad so that they will be protected from predators when they enter. It’s caulked and sealed to keep them warm. After lots of reading and wavering, I’m putting the bat box on the south-eastern wall of our home: it gets early morning and 7hrs of sun, is sheltered between two homes and out of the worst winds, and will benefit from the protection and heat of a large wall. We’ve put it at about 14 ft high – with easy flight paths from our front yard. If I don’t see bats in this first season, I will use a paste made of bat guano to try to lure them. (Keep your fingers crossed for me!)
Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here
- Toronto Zoo’s excellent Bat Conservation Program’s booklet ‘Bats a Conservation Guide‘ (Includes instructions on how to build your own bat box)
- About Bats
- Help the Bats (#helpthebats)
- Pledge to Help Bats
- Attracting Bats (commercial page)
- Bacteria to Combat White-Nose Syndrome?
- Still No Viable Solution… Decimation Continues
- Protecting the Ecosystem
- White Nose Analysis
She’s Gone Batty ~ © 2016 Natasha G