Argh! Bats!

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Relax, say experts: little brown bats are our friends

Scared of bats? How’d you like to live with hundreds of them?

St. Albert environmentalist Elke Blodgett did so for 40 years at her cabin in the woods west of St. Albert. The cabin had a small square tower on one end, she says, and hundreds of bats would camp out inside its walls every year.

They were actually good neighbours, she says — they kept to themselves, rarely got in the house, and devoured every bug in sight. “I have no mosquitoes around, anywhere!”

She says she loved watching them dance in the moonlight outside her cabin, totally silent. “You could only hear them (if they) crawled over your head and over the walls.” It wasn’t until the decades of guano they left in the walls made her sick that she decided to get rid of them.

Bats have a bad reputation that they don’t deserve, Blodgett says. “They’re innocuous, innocent critters that help us,” she says. “I think they’re really quite cute.”

Margo Pybus is a wildlife disease specialist with Alberta Fish and Wildlife and a founding member of the Alberta Bat Action Team (a group that works to preserve bats).

Bats get a bad rap due to their association with darkness and Dracula, Pybus says, but they don’t deserve it. Alberta’s bats are exclusively insectivores, she notes, and devour many pesky moths, flies and mosquitoes.

Bats are the only truly flying mammals in Alberta, Pybus says. “If it’s something flying through the air and it’s got fur, it’s going to be a bat.”

The question is which kind. Alberta has nine species of bat, according to the province, most of which are impossible to tell apart unless you have them in your hands.

The one you’re most likely to see is the little brown bat, Pybus says, about two million of which frequent the province in any year. They tend to hang out in caves and attics, usually in groups of 50 to 300, and are known for their tiny bodies, chocolate-brown fur, and 20-centimetre wingspan.

Bats spend most of the day asleep, either clinging to a wall or hanging upside down. They’re particularly fond of south-facing red brick walls, Pybus notes, such as those around St. Albert Place, as they tend to be warm.

Little brown bats usually wake up about half an hour after sunset. “The first thing they do is go take a drink,” Pybus says, as they prefer to sleep in hot, dry places. To do so, they’ll usually skim the surface of a lake with their mouths open.

The bats will then use their sonar and ultra-manoeuvrable wings to snatch bugs out of the air. Little brown bats are known to eat up to 900 bugs an hour, according to the province, with most colonies gobbling 50 kilograms of bugs a summer. Watch carefully, and you might see a bat picking off moths gathered around streetlights.

Bats fly south for the winter, Pybus says, so you’ll be hard pressed to find one in Edmonton right now. You won’t find any little brown bats, but a few big brown bats might be hibernating in warehouses. (Big brown bats look like little browns, except they’re bigger and more blonde.)

Despite numbering in the millions, little brown bats were recommended for endangered status by the federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) earlier this year.

The reason is white-nose syndrome, Pybus says — a fungal disease that has already killed about seven million bats on the east coast since 2006. It hasn’t reached Alberta yet, but the province has already closed two key bat hibernation sites to people to protect local populations.

We can help bats by spreading the word that they’re not bad guys, Pybus says. “If you see a bat that’s hanging up on a wall sleeping, leave it alone.”

That goes double if you find one sleeping this winter: not only is it illegal to disturb a bat’s hibernation site in Alberta between Sept. 1 and April 30, but doing so is often fatal for the bat, as they have no way to replenish their lost energy.

Blodgett says she had to dismantle her cabin’s tower and evict the bats a few years ago. The bats are still there, though — they moved into the woodshed. “And I still don’t have any mosquitoes!”

Little brown bat

Scientific name:
Myotis lucifugus.

Appearance:
Small flying mammal with brown fur and black hairless wings.

Commonly seen:
Buzzing moths around streetlamps, snoozing on side of St. Albert Place.

Often confused with:
The big brown bat, which is, well, bigger.

Fun fact:
They can live for 30 or more years in the wild.

Wild St. Albert

Like wildlife? So do we! Every second Wednesday the Gazette profiles a reasonably common wild creature in the St. Albert region. Birds, beasts, bugs, fish … so long as it’s alive and kicking, we’ll feature it.

Got a creature you’d like to see profiled? Send your suggestions to kma@stalbert.greatwest.ca.

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About Author

Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.