Bats in the Belfry

One of the coolest things I have ever witnessed, and I just want to reiterate here that it is only one of the coolest things, is the bat flight at Carlsbad Caverns.  Yeah, bats.  Thousands of them.  Flying over your head.

My first thought when I was sitting in the amphitheater in front of the cave opening was I was going to get covered with bat guano from an aerial attack, but the National Park Ranger assured us that there was nothing to fear.  So we sat there, and waited.  For what, I wasn’t sure.

Each evening , during the summer (from Memorial Day weekend through mid-October) Brazilian, also know as Mexican, free-tail bats fly out of the Cavern to feast on insects along the Pecos River.  They can predict the start time within a few minutes each evening and when I was there in the early 80’s it went off right as scheduled.  Every morning the bats return after their all night feast.  Since they return between 5 and 7 am, I’ve never seen that phenomenon, but I hear it’s just as impressive.  Bats diving from hundreds of feet up to 40 miles per hour.  By mid-October they head South for the winter to Mexico returning again in April or May depending on the weather.

So you’re sitting there at the cave opening listening to the Park Ranger’s spiel, and you start to hear some rustling, then the sound grows and a bat or two will emerge from the cave entrance.  You’re thinking, “wow, this is it?”  Then, all of a sudden, like a black smoke cloud, thousands of bats fly out and gain altitude.  It goes on for a few minutes and you can see the black cloud as it moves out over the desert.  You would think that there would be a few stragglers, you know, a bat or two that wants to investigate the humans sitting below.  But no, nothing at all like that, although I don’t think the ranger guaranteed that it wouldn’t happen.

Bats are a primary source of U.S. human rabies, but no one had ever died from a bat bite until last year in Louisiana.  It was made public today, August 12, 2011, that a 19-year-old male was the first human to die from a vampire bat bite in the United States, ever.  He was bitten by the bat in his home in Michoacan, Mexico.

So what’s the difference between a vampire bat and a free-tail bat?  As the name implies, the vampire bat lives on blood.  “I vant to suck your blood.”  It mostly attacks sleeping mammals at night and sucks their blood.  The free-tail bat, on the other hand, is an insectivore.  It eats moths, beetles, dragon flies, and the like, usually while they’re both in flight.  Kind of like an insect/bat dog fight.  Anyway, the death of the Mexican man in Louisiana is what made me remember my, thankfully,  few encounters with bats.  Carlsbad Caverns being the one, and this is the other.

When we lived in Sheridan, Wyoming, on Burkitt Street, we had bats that lived in our attic.  I don’t know what type they were, but I’m pretty sure they were insectivores.  Once, since they can’t really see, one accidentally flew into the house one warm summer evening following one of my younger sisters through the open screen door.  My lord it sounded like a mass murder was taking place in there from the screams being emitted by the women folk.  The men folk weren’t being very brave either.  Me, being the oldest male folk in attendance, was given the task of extricating the invader from the house.  My weapon:  a broom.

As the rest of the household cowered in fear, I started ducking and swaying, swinging the broom several times as the bat circled the kitchen.  I finally made contact.  The bat fell to the floor stunned.  Bats are ug-ly.  Trust me, if you haven’t ever seen one.  I almost screamed when I looked at it close up.  I started sweeping the bat towards the back screen door.  He was having nothing of that and started to get to his feet.  I smacked him again with the broom.  And again.  Kept sweeping him towards the door.

“Open the screen door,” I screamed at one of the younger siblings.  “Now.” 

As soon as the door opened, I executed one of my best slap shots and the bat was hurled into the back yard.  He staggered around for a few minutes,  then took off, quickly, gaining altitude until he was out of sight.

So those are my bat stories.  I hear people make bat houses to encourage bats to move into their neighborhoods.  I wonder why?

(NPS Photo at top of page by Nick Hristov.)

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Bats in the Belfry

  1. Len, bats are essential to the environment! I love ’em. I read where some bats can eat up to 600 bugs an hour. And they are as important to pollination as birds and bees. Every night during monsoon we have Mexican long-tongued bats (endangered) come and drain the hummingbird feeder. I make sure I refill it every morning. The bats are shy and it’s hard to photograph them, but I have a few and will post sometime.

    I wish people weren’t so scared of bats, they sure don’t want to bother humans. We have scary bugs here that are much more threatening to humans and animals. I envy you for seeing the spectacle at Carlsbad Caverns, that is so cool!

    • Yeah, I pretty much leave bats alone. I’ve only had the two “up close and personals” and I know I’ve been around a lot more bats than that. Actually, I think they’re sound sleepers, because I’ve been in and out of caves that I know bats were in, and I haven’t seen them. In the case of Carlsbad, they nest in a seperate chamber of the main entrance. If you haven’t gone to Carlsbad Caverns, you should. It’s an amazing place. The tarantula’s are wild there and you have to watch for them to cross the road. I’m not much into spiders either, but I know most of them are good have around.

  2. I nearly had to pass at reading this post. I had a colony of bats living in the eaves of my mountain home and 3 somehow found their way inside one evening. I screamed loudly too. And thought perhaps that this was the first time since my divorce that I really, really wished there was a man around. There wasn’t. So I got a broom and a fishing net and eventually got them out of the house. Hate bats. Couldn’t sleep for weeks. Rationally I knew they weren’t out to get me but they are so creepy!

    • Well, bats are creepy, but they can clear a lot of insects. They’re really good to have around. And I think if we could get over how damn ugly they are, we might be better neighbors.

      Has that only happened once? Or did you get rid of the bats?

      • I am optimistic ($4000 later) that the bats have been “eradicated.” We’ll see. They had to tear part of the roof off and found about 150 of them inside. Yikes. My feelings went from fear to loathing when I got the bill.

  3. Yeah, I pretty much leave bats alone. I’ve only had the two “up close and personals” and I know I’ve been around a lot more bats than that. Actually, I think they’re sound sleepers, because I’ve been in and out of caves that I know bats were in, and I haven’t seen them. In the case of Carlsbad, they nest in a seperate chamber of the main entrance. If you haven’t gone to Carlsbad Caverns, you should. It’s an amazing place. The tarantula’s are wild there and you have to watch for them to cross the road. I’m not much into spiders either, but I know most of them are good have around.

  4. I love bats, too! They eat tons of bugs and are just my kind of creature–they love dark cool places (I’m not kidding).

    One of the saddest things happening in my region of the country is that bats are dying by the thousands from a disease that looks like mold growing on their noses. It’s highly contagious to other bats and no one knows how to stop it. The bugs are happy, but I’m not!

  5. Ooops. Didn’t mean 150 bats inside my house. Between the roof and the eaves, whatever that space is called.

    • Wow, $4,000! I’m in the wrong business. You know it probably has a name, but if the eves are covered it’s a facia, I think in this case its just “space”. I call it under the overhang.

  6. Pingback: Bats | anniegirl1138

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