Like a Bat Out of Bellevue: Taking the Bite Out of a Bad Image

There are any number of reasons not to be here. It is a cold and windy October night, with heavy rain, minimal visibility, traffic backed up on 405, and an occasional ambulance pushing by. In tonight's World Series game, the New York Yankees have just begun to turn the tide from a 6-0 deficit in a game (and series) they will eventually win.But walking into the gymnasium at Bellevue's Stevenson Elementary School, you'd think that there was no better thing to do in the world than slog here to hear about bats. We're not talking baseball bats. We're talking about bats as in winged creatures, caves, and vampires.The East Lake Washington Audubon Society is gathered for its monthly meeting, and the featured speaker is Barbara Ogaard, a naturalist and zoologist who describes herself as a bat mom. Usually 75 people is a big crowd; tonight there are 100. Hugh Jennings, the Audubon society's field trip coordinator, notes the irony of having more members turn out for a talk on bats than typically show up for talks on birds. Members toss around greetings like "Got any bats in your belfry?" as they seat themselves in green metal folding chairs.Even Ogaard's attire is batty: She wears a Bats of America T-shirt, and when she lifts a moccasined foot, I catch a peek of orange socks with bats on them. If the wives' tale were true about bats seeking out women's hair to roost, they'd go for Ogaard's shoulder-length gray-blond hair, which stands out in waves from her head like springer spaniel ears.But, Ogaard informs us with a thick, pleasant Massachusetts accent, the bats-roosting-in-hair tale is a myth. It turns out that not only are most of the preconceptions we have about bats untrue, they're also unfair.A few examples: All bats are brown and ugly. They're a poor excuse for a bird, are blind, spread rabies, suck blood, and serve no useful purpose other than to frighten.Actually, few bats have rabies (one-half of 1 percent), only three species drink blood (vampire bats found on the Mexican border, Costa Rica, and South America, which drink the blood of cattle and horses). Different species have different favored roosts. Caves work well, as do attics and abandoned mines. Other sites include trees, tree bark, and cliffs. Bats have excellent eyesight, though many do use echolocation to find bugs and other food. And if weren't for bats, we'd be crawling with bugs.In spite of a relatively benign place in the animal kingdom, the bat population has been reduced by 40 percent since the mid-'60s. Loss of habitat, use of pesticides on the insects that bats eat, predatory behavior by domestic cats, and destruction of colonies by humans who consider them pests have all taken their toll.Still, bats remain the second-largest order of mammals in the world. There are 1,000 different species, and 40 in the United States, two of which-the big brown bat and the little brown bat -- are commonly found in the Puget Sound area. Wing spans range from 78 inches -- more than 6 feet -- among flying fox bats to a tiny 6 inches among bumblebee bats.Bats live up to 30 years. Some are remarkably handsome. We see pictures of a red bat with beautiful long red fur and another, the silver-haired bat, with attractive silver fur. Shapes and features also vary: Looking at their heads, one bat resembles a mouse, another a fox, and still another a chicken.When Ogaard, who is the educational director at Sarvey Wildlife Center in Arlington, informs us that bats are more sophisticated in their aerodynamic structure than birds, she waits, hands in mock recoil, for a reaction from the birding group. The bat's wing, Ogaard says, is similar to the human arm and hand, with a elbow, forearm, wrist, thumb, and four long fingers. Because bats can bend their fingers, they are able to perform acrobatics like somersaults, fast turns, and swoops.The benefits we obtain from bats, Ogaard tells us, are remarkable. She shows a slide of a fruit bat, its long red tongue extending into the flower of a banana plant, pollinating a plant that opens its blossom only at night. Bats also pollinate cashews, figs, peaches, avocados, desert cacti that produce tequila, and hundreds of other product sources.Most bats feed on insects. A colony of 150 little brown bats will eat about 38,000 cucumber beetles in the course of a summer. Many bats are voracious moth and mosquito eaters; little brown bats can catch up to 600 mosquitoes per hour. Ogaard points out that Camano Island has developed a mosquito problem because extensive construction has led to loss of tree habitats for bats.One urban solution to loss of roosts is the bat box. Ogaard shows us one; it looks like a big bird house, a "bat condominium" divided inside by slats -- like closets -- in which bats can hang.Finally, Ogaard shows off a live male big brown bat. Despite its name, the creature is only about 4 inches long and looks odd and vulnerable with its wings folded in. He tenaciously grips her hand against the excited buzz of onlookers.After Ogaard finishes, after the chairs have been put away, I feel more kindly toward bats than when the evening began, but something still holds me back from full-blown admiration. Can we really view these flying mammals as anything more than oddities put on earth to scare us?We stragglers listen as Ogaard tells one last story."They say that mums have to show the babies how to hunt, but I proved that wrong. When I get babies, they're the size of beetles. I had one escape out of my cage when I had it on the back step."She was certain that the little bat would be eaten by cats; he flew by her backyard every night but she couldn't entice him back inside her house. She'd given up hope. But one day, she heard squabbling in her eaves."I looked up and saw two little bats, and sure enough, I called to him and he answered. This other bat taught him how to hunt."The bat even returned after winter hibernation."After that," Ogaard says, "he became sexually mature, and I've never seen him since. Typical boy."I step outside to begin my journey home. The wind and rain are gone, a few stars are out, skirting the edges of clouds. I look up to the darkness, hoping to catch sight of a small, tentative shadow passing above my head. A leaf flutters briefly, but no bats pass my way.I wait a moment longer, watching, listening, and then drive away into the deep and lasting comfort of the night. Marjorie Wenrich is a health-services researcher and a freelance writer.You can reach Bat Conservation International at 800-538-BATS or To reach the East Lake Washington Audubon Society, call 451-3717.SIDEBAR ONEThe Birds and the Bees -- and the BatsResearchers on human fertility are studying bats for clues to their delayed fertilization. Mating takes place before bats hibernate. But remarkably, the female maintains the sperm until after the six-month hibernation, when she ovulates. (Hibernation generally starts between September and November.)Female bats form maternity colonies and give birth after seven to 10 weeks. Most species give birth to a single pup per year, and pups are one-third the body size of the mother (the equivalent of a human giving birth to a 40-pound baby). The pups learn to fly at about three weeks. Juvenile male bats are run out of the maternity colony as soon as they learn to fly, and because this is an accident-prone period, there is an 80 percent fatality rate among young males, making bats especially vulnerable to the other forces that have reduced their population by 40 percent in the last three decades


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