August 26, 2004

Gone Batty

It takes all kinds of people to make up a world;

All kinds of people and things.

They crawl on the earth, they swim in the sea

And they fly through the sky on wings.

Oscar Hammerstein

It was early in August and I was staining the siding of my house, one of the most boring jobs imaginable. I was on a ladder, working where the second story deck joined the house when two bats flew out of a quarter of an inch gap between the deck and the siding. Then, a tiny head poked out of the gap and it looked at me for a few seconds before it too flew away. I have an image of that face indelibly printed in my brain. It was love at first sight. It had a pretty face and I was smitten.

I got my degree in zoology at the University of California, so I was required to take a course in the natural history of vertebrates. Bats were briefly discussed, but they didn't interest me. Now that I have met one face to face, it has become personal.

My first experience of bats was when I was in Italy one summer. I was impressed with the sound of a summer day; there was a constant hum of insects. At dusk, clouds of bats flew out of the church tower. Bats and their food, insects, are as much a part of Italy as is spaghetti. Italy has, for millennia, fed its population and the insect populations were kept within bounds by insect eating animals, including bats. What? Without insecticides?

Once, when we had some house guests, a small bat flew in the door when one of us opened it. The woman dove under the covers. Her husband took my butterfly net and started chasing the bat. I will never forget that hulk of a man in his underwear chasing a bat with a butterfly net. He caught the bat and we put it outside where it belonged. That was the end of that. I didn't bother getting a good look at the animal.

We have seen bats flying around our house before sunrise which, I believe, is responsible for keeping flying insects, especially mosquitoes, under control. I built a bat house and they might be using it.

After my encounter with that tiny bat, I went to my bookshelves. I found a book that apparently had never been opened, much less read. It was a Golden Guide called Bats of the World. It was written by Gary L. Graham and beautifully illustrated by Fiona A. Reid. I couldn't put it down. (The book lists for $7 but is available at Amazon for a lot less.)

Bats have to be the most diverse mammals. You see one cat and you've seen them all. The main difference in cats is size and color. The only thing that different species of bats have in common with each other, besides all being mammals, is that they all fly. The diversity in bats is so great that if you eliminated the wings on a flying fox or a bumble bee bat, you wouldn't know that you were dealing with a bat.

Apparently my enthusiasm for bats was catching; my wife also read the bat book. What fascinated her was how many bats give birth. Usually bats hang head down, but when most bats give birth, they hang head up. There is a membrane that goes from the hind legs to the tail and the baby bat falls into the membrane. The baby then crawls up to attach to a nipple. At night, when mamma goes bug hunting, the baby hangs head down in the roost until mamma returns with a bellyful of insects. Apparently a mother bat can recognize her own baby even among hundreds of others.

Bats are fascinating. I could spend at least one other lifetime studying bats.

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