Bats should be welcomed, not feared
Georgians urged to put outdated myths aside
FORSYTH — Halloween has come and gone, but superstitious fears and negative myths about bats live on, fed by the creatures’ unusual habits and appearance. Some people panic at the thought of a bat in their home. Others are better informed and realize that bats are for the most part harmless and fascinating.
“ Many people despise bats because they perceive them to be aggressive carriers of disease,” said Jim Ozier, program manager with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division. “ While bats can transmit rabies to people, such incidences are extremely rare. Most bat bites are the result of an obviously sick bat being handled. A wise precaution is to avoid handling bats with bare hands.”
Georgia is home to 16 species of bats, all of which seek a sheltered roost during the day and emerge at night to eat flying insects such as moths, mosquitoes and beetles. Some species, such as the gray bat and southeastern myotis, depend upon specific suitable caves for roosting. Others, such as big brown bats and evening bats, are more adaptable and use hollow trees and buildings. Red bats and Seminole bats conceal themselves in foliage. All Georgia bats use echolocation, a biological sonar, to find food and avoid obstacles while flying rapidly in the darkness.
Female bats typically give birth to one or two young in the spring. Often, several females form a nursery colony in a warm, sheltered spot where they bear and raise their pups together. The young are ready to join the adults in flight two to three weeks after birth. Most bats hibernate during the wintertime, but some will awaken and emerge to forage on particularly warm winter evenings.
Especially during the past century, many bat populations have been dramatically affected by widespread alterations to their roosting and foraging habitat, including loss of critical forested areas and caves. Some species have adapted to using buildings for shelter, but old buildings are often destroyed and bats are usually not welcome when they move into the walls or attics of people’s homes. Additionally, water pollution has impacted many waterways valuable to bats because of the aquatic insects they produce. Widespread use of insecticides has further contaminated and reduced food supplies.
Though bats should be an appreciated part of our natural heritage, they are not often welcomed when they begin to roost in buildings, especially if they occasionally stray into someone’s living space. Their droppings, commonly known as guano, build up at the roost and can create unpleasant odors. Guano accumulations also sometimes harbor a fungus whose spores, if inhaled in concentrated amounts, can cause a lung infection known as histoplasmosis. On the other hand, guano is a highly prized fertilizer in many areas.
“ In most situations, nuisance bat problems can be resolved with no harm to the bats and little expense to the homeowner if detected early,” Ozier said.
Like most species of native wildlife, all bats are protected by state law; there are no legal remedies that involve killing or harming them. Instead, they should be excluded from the structure by sealing openings and using one- way doors that allow the bats to come out in the evening to feed, but do not allow them to reenter. Exclusions should only be done during early spring and late summer/ fall to avoid entrapping young that cannot yet fly.
Homeowners should be particularly alert to the presence of bats early in the spring so they can be excluded prior to birth of the young. The freetailed bat is a species whose numbers sometimes grow to many thousands at a single roost if not excluded promptly.
Once the bats are gone, it is essential that the building is repaired and maintained to prevent future occupancy. Large guano accumulations should also be removed by a qualified technician. Ideally, an alternate roost structure should be installed nearby when evicting bats. Homeowners should seek technical advice from a qualified source before attempting to handle bat exclusions themselves.
“ If a homeowner hires someone to do the job, they should make sure the person is qualified, permitted and aware of proper exclusion techniques,” Ozier said. “ It is generally a good idea to get multiple estimates and references for larger jobs.”
Like many other species of mammals, bats can contract rabies and an infected bat can spread the disease through biting. Bats that present a potential health risk by entering people’s living spaces should be evicted immediately.
Today, we know enough about bats to admire and respect them for their critical roles in nature, and to attempt to resolve some of the problems that affect their long- term survival. Six of Georgia’s bat species are considered to be of special conservation concern because of threats to their populations. Three of these, the gray bat, Indiana bat and Rafinesque’s big- eared bat, are listed for special protection under the Georgia Endangered Wildlife Act. The gray and Indiana bat receive even stronger protection on the federal Endangered Species List.
Several states are forming groups similar to Georgia’s Bat Working Group to support the North American Bat Conservation Partnership. The Partnership and working groups seek to identify research, survey, monitoring, management and public education efforts needed to promote conservation of bat populations and support programs that meet these needs.
For more information on bats, please contact the Georgia DNR/ WRD Nongame Conservation Section ( 478- 994- 1438) or visit www. georgiawildlife. com. Also, visit the following Web sites: Georgia Bat Working Group ( http:// www. basicallybats. org/ gbwg/ aboutUs. html), Bat Conservation International ( www. batcon. org) and North American Bat Conservation Partnership ( www. batcon. org/ nabcp/ newsite/ index. html).
Georgians can support nongame wildlife conservation, education and recreation programs by buying a wildlife license plate or by donating to the “ Give Wildlife a Chance” State Income Tax Checkoff. Sales of the bald eagle/ American flag and ruby- throated hummingbird tags are the primary funding source for the WRD’s Nongame Conservation Section.