Bats James Eckert

(Photo by Rich Kostecke/TNC)

During the summer months, Indiana Hoosiers have been signing up to assist with US Fish and Wildlife bat surveys to ascertain the numbers and species of bats in our Hoosier State so that we can help to protect them.

Imagine a spooky Halloween scenario, or a scary movie with a haunted mansion, and chances are it’ll include at least one flying bat. A bat flapping its wings on a dark night has become synonymous with creepy. Overcoming that stereotype is a steep hill to climb for bats.

During the day, when I work in the Kankakee Sands Seed Barn, I can see a little bat roosted in the rafters. While I work, I’m relatively unbothered by insects, and I’m pretty sure that’s because the bat ate a good majority of them the night before, judging from the large number of bat droppings on the floor each morning. All of our bats in Indiana are insect eaters, and bats can eat up to half their body weight in insects each night!

On most summer evenings, if I need to go out to our unattached garage to get something from the freezer, I will often be accompanied by a bat – a flying mammal, the only flying mammal in the world! Crazy cool, right? Silently, the bat enters my garage and zooms around, capturing insects drawn to the light. Even though I know the bat has no interest in me, I still get a bit nervous when they are flying overhead.

A bat in the home is also quite disturbing to many people, as bats have been associated with carrying the rabies virus. The Center for Disease Control suggests that fewer than six percent of bats are likely to carry the disease, yet bats are the most common cause of rabies in the United States, now that we have rabies vaccines for dogs and cats. When a bat accidentally enters your home, the best thing is to try to calmly confine it to a room with a window, open the window, and allow it to leave on its own at night. The trick is the ‘calmly’ part.

But that’s the beauty of nature, right? When nature is at its most natural, it demands our respect. It asks us to confront our fears, stretch our comfort zone, and come to a new level of understanding with the world around us. A healthy respect for nature keeps us safe and allows nature to be kept safe, too.

There are thirteen species of bats that have been documented in Indiana over the years: big brown bat, gray bat, Indiana bat, little brown bat, northern long-eared bat, tri-colored bat, eastern red bat, evening bat, hoary bat, silver-haired bat, eastern small-footed bat and Rafinesque’s big-eared bat. Of these, six are state endangered and five are species of special concern.

Bat numbers have been dropping over the past ten years. A fungal disease called white-nose syndrome has killed millions of bats in North America. The disease causes hibernating bats to wake more frequently during the winter months and use up their fat reserves before spring. As a result, the bats starve and die. Human disturbance of hibernating bats, especially in caves, can have the same effect on bats, causing them to use up their stores of energy before they can access food again in the spring. When woodlots are converted to agricultural or residential areas, bat roosting and foraging areas are lost. And unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of bats die each year in the United States due to collisions with wind turbines, as reported by the United State Geological Survey.

There’s been a resurgence of interest in bats in recent years. Bats are finally getting the respect they deserve as insect devourers. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources estimates that the economic benefit of our insect eating bats to the agricultural industry is more than $3.7 billion per year!

During the summer months, Indiana Hoosiers have been signing up to assist with US Fish and Wildlife bat surveys to ascertain the numbers and species of bats in our Hoosier State so that we can help to protect them. Homeowners are installing bat boxes on their land to encourage bats to take up residence, and bat gardens are springing up all across the Midwest.

A bat garden is a garden which incorporates native flowering plants that attract moths and night flying insects—the very food that bats love to eat. Bat garden plants include such species as wild bergamot, rose milkweed, rattlesnake master, tall ironweed, and prairie blazing star. These are all plants which grow well in our northwest Indiana area. Consider adding bat friendly plants to your own garden or creating a new bat garden in addition to your butterfly and hummingbird gardens. If you do, you’ll be able to enjoy flying creatures gracing your skies day and night.

This Halloween, enjoy those cool and creepy bat decorations, and remember that even though real bats may be a wee bit creepy, they are mighty cool, too.

The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands is an 8,400-acre prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana, open every day of the year for public enjoyment. For more information about Kankakee Sands, visit www.nature.org/KankakeeSands or call the office at 219-285-2184.