Why Illinois bats are good bats
June 22, 1989
In which I introduce my readers to their neighbors, the bats. I wrote about bats for Chicago's Reader too. I had a mailman named Rita in Oak Park, where I was living at the time, and she put up a bat house in her back yard. which just goes to show.
The news at the moment is full of Bat-this and Bat-that as the nation goes batty—you knew I'd say it—over a movie that turned a profit before it even opened. Naturally, I share the hope of all Americans that the movie version of Batman will restore our ailing lunchbox industry to global pre-eminence. I also harbor the less general hope that the film will rehabilitate the reputation of the useful creature after which the Marketed Marauder is named.
Bias against bats is general. When the state's Natural History Survey cataloged Illinois's natural resources recently, they left out bats. No high school basketball teams are nicknamed the Bats, no cuddly toys are modeled upon them. Bats are, with spiders, snakes, atheists, and socialists, one of the creatures people are proud to be unreasonable about. Ask someone to think "bat" for example and she will conjure up a vision of prejudice—small, dark creatures that eat icky food and have eccentric habits, that live in fetid quarters where six, sixty, even 6,000 sleep to a room, and that seem bent on attacking innocent people without apparent provocation. Iranians with wings, in other words.
All errant nonsense, of course. Most of the misdemeanors with which bats are charged owe more to our ignorance than their character. True, they sleep upside down, but if Art Linkletter recommended the position as good for the back on late-night TV folks'd be dangling like overripe fruits from the closet rods over at the Oak Terrace retirement home. Photos often capture bats in flight with teeth bared, as if to attack; in fact they are no more menacing than a cheering crowd at the ball park, since they must open their mouths to emit the high-pitched cries by which they navigate. And the fear that bats will tangle themselves in a woman's hair is both inexplicable (women pay guys named Ric $50 to do the same thing, usually with less flattering results) and an unfounded one; bats may flutter near a person's head, hunting for gnats, but to a bat a woman's head is just another shrub.
Misinformation is rife. Bats are not blind, although like any sensitive creature there is much in the world they would rather not see. There are in fact vampire-bats, but none lives farther north than Mexico, and in any event they pose less threat than, say, alimony lawyers. And while some tropical bats are quite large—imagine a Pekinese that flies and you have imagined the tropical fruit bat—all twelve species of bats found in Illinois (all members of the family Vespertilionidae) are small and harmless to humans.
Bats are mammals, after all, one of the family so to speak. The females nurse their young and fall asleep while mating, just like human females. True, they lack the instinct for prejudice shown by humans. Local animal control officers report that bats are found in houses all over Springfield, for example, and several species of bats can inhabit the same cave quite congenially, which is more than the General Assembly usually manages. And colonizing species—whose presence is betrayed by half-eaten food, who live in clusters, who stir at dusk and catch their meals on the fly and which communicate in high-pitched squeaks indecipherable to most humans—resemble U.S. college students so closely that they could probably qualify for Pell grants if they, as most of their human cousins have done, could find someone to fill out the forms for them.
Unlike college students, however, bats serve a useful function. Illinois bats are insectivorous, and will take any flying insect on the wing. Since they specialize in night-flying prey, and since night-flying insects—mosquitoes, June bugs, gypsy moths—tend to be pests, a bat's diet consists almost entirely of things people would rather live without. Lots of things, because a bat (again like college students) must eat up to half his body weight each day. I have read admiring accounts of how a single bat can put away three, even four thousand mosquitoes in an evening. Like most body counts published by partisans, these should be regarded skeptically. They are skilled hunters however; unimpeachable tests have shown that a bat can pick off seven mosquitoes per minute, a kill rate that makes them the most formidable aerial predators around, after the Israeli Air Force.
Feature articles explaining the virtues of bats have become a staple of newspapers ("Here's a guy who likes bats! That's news!") but public opinion looks to be uncorrectable. Bats get the short end even in cultures such as northern Europe's where the animal is not automatically shunned as loathsome. The Germans consider the bat a symbol of good luck—jolly for the bats, I thought, until I read on, and learned that the way Heinrich brings good luck to a house is by nailing a live bat to it, above the door, to ward off things Heinrich regards as menacing.
There is scant reason for people around the globe to associate bats with the sinister, apart from the barrel-rotting habits of the vampire bats. It is true that there are more bats in cities than in the suburbs, where the chemical spraying for insects has diminished bats' food supplies and where the buildings (usually shorter, newer, and less ornamented) offer fewer roost sites. But this is a recent trend, and the prejudice against bats dates back centuries. The animus would seem to owe to the simple fact that bats do what they do in the dark, away from the sight and thus the understanding of all but a few humans. A similar reputation for evil-doing is accreting around the person of Mike Madigan for the same reason.
Yes, bats can carry rabies. In 1987 two cases of human contact with rabid bats were reported in Springfield (the last known episodes locally). Any bat which acts aggressively toward humans may indeed be sick and should be avoided. But most encounters involve bats that are not sick but confused, asleep, or just preoccupied. Merlin Tuttle of Bat Conservation International (an advocacy group rather like the IEA) has argued that one is less likely to be bitten by a rabid bat than to contract food poisoning at a church picnic.
True enough; church picnics are to food poisoning what sneezes are to colds. The chances of being bitten by a rabid bat at a church picnic are virtually nil; after decades of study, no bat species has shown any tendency toward organized religion, even though a bat cave—crammed with fluttering individuals clinging together in fear, the place permeated with a stink that might be mistaken for sanctimony—resembles a church in certain superficial respects.
So remember that bats are your friends. Fido can get rabies too, after all. And the next time you get to thinking of yourself as nature at its cleverest, remember that you, unlike the bat, can't find your way to the bathroom in the dark without tripping over something. So when you get the urge to nail something above your door for luck, don't choose a bat. Nail up a check, made out to your alderman's reelection campaign. It's a surer means to good fortune. Leave your bats in the belfry, where they belong. ●
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