Florida Bats Make Great Neighbors
Ask most folks about their favorite neighborhood wildlife and you’ll probably hear about birds, butterflies, or adorable squirrel antics. One critter you probably won’t hear much about is the bat. Legends swirl around these nocturnal mammals: that they’ll flap blindly into your hair, drink your blood, give you rabies, or even destroy your home. On reflection, maybe we’ve all been watching a bit too many horror movies.
Whatever the source of these frightful fantasies, says Shari Blisset-Clark, president of Florida Bat Conservancy, they unfortunately mask the true value of a remarkable animal – one we should welcome into our communities. “I think bats make wonderful neighbors!” she opines.
Doug O’Dowd, a Historic Old Northeast Neighborhood Association board member who has lived in the neighborhood since 1993, agrees. In fact, he’s trying to persuade a colony of bats to move into a specially designed bat house in his backyard.
What’s so great about these furry fliers? Let’s start by separating bat-fact from bat-fiction: first, all three of the Tampa Bay region’s most common bats – the Brazilian (or Mexican) free-tailed bat, the evening bat, and the Seminole bat– are insectivores. They use echolocation to seek out moths, mosquitos, and other creepy crawlies, but not human blood. While we can breathe a sigh of relief, woe unto the arthropods: according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s website, a single one of these two- to six-inch critters may eat hundreds of insects in a night! “There is nothing in the world that can outcompete bats in consuming insects,” adds Blisset-Clark.
Moreover, contrary to popular myth, bats can both see and hear quite well. If you peer closely at their tiny little mugs, you’ll find an incredible variety of nose, ear, and eye shapes, each adapted to their particular species’ foraging patterns and preferences – much like a fluffier version of Darwin’s famous finches. So, when Florida bats seem to be swooping threateningly in your direction, it’s more likely they are using these finely tuned senses to capture insects drawn to the carbon dioxide in your…um…exhalations.
It is true that bats can bite. And it’s also true that some bats – about one in every 200, according to the University of Florida – can transmit rabies. But while most infected mammals tend to become more aggressive, rabid bats become more sluggish, often falling to the ground. Stay on the safe side and never handle a bat, especially with bare hands. Always call your local FWC office or a wildlife care facility if you find one on the ground.
What about bats in the belfry? Local bats tend to roost in mature or dying trees but have also adapted to manmade structures such as bridges or buildings – including houses. But unlike other stowaway critters, bats do not chew or burrow; in fact, they can only be found in attics where other animals, or a lack of routine maintenance, has created an entryway they can exploit. The biggest issue a bat infestation creates is typically their pungent poop – or guano – which can accumulate in large quantities before it is discovered. At that point, a homeowner may perform a humane exclusion, a process that gradually prevents bats from reentering the roost site. Good to note: it is illegal under Florida law to poison bats or intentionally harm their nesting sites, or to exclude a colony during bats’ mid-April to mid-August maternity season.
Ok, so maybe bats aren’t the red-eyed, blood-thirsty, screeching menace that popular culture makes them out to be. But why would you want them in your yard?
For O’Dowd, who can remember watching bats come out growing up in Clearwater, it’s about making his yard and his neighborhood more sustainable. Alongside the beehives on his carriage house roof and the native plantings in his yard, he hopes the bat house he and his neighbor installed on their property line – designed to shelter about 150 bats – will enrich the local biodiversity, while helping to naturally control mosquitos. With Florida’s human population increasing at a steady rate, he thinks all residents should be mindful of what they can do to decrease their impact on the state’s strained ecosystems. “If everyone could do this,” he says, “it would be awesome!”
Blisset-Clark, whose organization has built and installed 1,600 bat houses across the state, sees providing habitat for bats as a critical part of rewilding, a process of restoring natural systems that have been damaged by the last century of Florida’s development. As she points out, large scale changes we have made – clearing forests, ditching waterways, heavy use of pesticides – have all challenged natural mosquito predators such as dragonflies, turtles, salamanders, mosquito fish, and, of course, bats. Helping bats regain their toehold – or, more appropriately, their clawhold – on the landscape can replace some of that natural pressure on mosquito populations.
Putting up a bat box is a great way to help, though it can take some trial and error to get right. Whether you build your own, purchase a kit, or buy one readymade, there are detailed instructions on design, placement, and maintenance available on Florida Bat Conservancy’s website. Or motor on up to Gainesville to see the world’s largest occupied bat houses at the Florida Museum, home to an enormous colony of 500,000 bats that was excluded from the bleachers at James G. Pressly Stadium and Scott Linder Tennis Stadium in 1991. (Indeed, bat houses are often used in combination with a humane exclusion to rehome nuisance bats…though not usually on this scale).
If you’re not ready to host a cute little bat-galow in your yard, you can still help support local bat populations. Allowing aging trees to stand as long as you safely can and leaving a few dead fronds when you trim your palms preserves habitat. Avoiding the use of pesticides leaves plenty of healthy forage for bats, while reducing artificial lighting helps them navigate the night sky more successfully.
Next time you step out into the night, as your eyes adjust to the darkening sky, let your ears tune in to the subtle chirps, croaks, rustles, and wooshes of the night orchestra tuning up for another nocturnal performance. Watch and listen for the subtle swoop of Florida bats intercepting their prey, high ropes artists on wires of ultrasonic sound. You might just discover a new favorite neighbor.
Learn more about bats and bat boxes at floridabats.org.