Silverwing, one of the books my kids and I read when they were in middle school, made a lasting impression on us. The hero of the story is a young silver-haired bat named Shade. The characters are based on the lives of real bat species and the book takes readers through their adventurous, and often misadventurous, migration. Like many great books, this one tells a page-turning story while introducing the reader to a new dimension of the world. By the time we had finished the book and its sequels, our family had a stronger appreciation for bats’ roles in the natural world and the challenges they face.
Bats aren’t highly visible animals because they sleep during the day and are active after most of us have gone inside for the night. They play a critical role in the natural world, however. Bats are the only mammals that can truly fly and, surprisingly, bat species account for as many as 20 percent of the mammal species in the world. Most of the 47 bat species native to the United States eat primarily insects, many of them agricultural and economic pests, such as mosquitoes, leaf hoppers, June bugs, corn earworm moths, and stinkbugs. They can eat half their own body weight in insects each night, and nursing females eat twice that amount. Some are important pollinators, too.
Austin, Texas is one place that bats are quite visible and celebrated. The crevices under the Congress Avenue Bridge house up to 1.5 million bats during peak season in late summer. Tourists flock to the area to watch the bats take flight each evening at dusk and can even call a hot line for information about best viewing times and locations.
One way to help bats and bring these beneficial animals to your garden is to provide them with a place to roost. Bats need cozy cracks and crevices where they can hang during the day, safe from predators and weather. Well-constructed and properly placed bat shelters or houses are usually occupied within two years. For more information on bat houses visit the Bat Conservation International web site.
My kids have grown, but bats are back on my radar this year due to the wrenching discovery that thousands of them throughout the northeastern U.S. are dying mysteriously. Entire colonies of hibernating bats have been wiped out and threatened species are increasingly endangered. A species of fungus that thrives in the cold, called geomyces, appears on the skin and faces of hibernating bats, giving them a white-nosed appearance. Scientists are still working to find out how the fungus may be linked to the bat deaths. Read the latest research.
When I sit on my deck on summer evenings, I watch bats swoop gracefully after their prey and silently thank them for every mosquito they munch.