Marvels and misfortunes of bats

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Behold: bats, mammalian order Chiroptera, one of nature’s most remarkable yet misunderstood, undervalued and maligned creatures.

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You might catch a glimpse of one in the summer twilight, dipping and diving in its ceaseless foraging for airborne insects.

Bats, which have existed since the time of dinosaurs, are the second largest group of mammals on the planet. They number more than 1,400 species worldwide, 40 in North America.

Eight species of bats live in Ontario, but only big brown and little brown bats. These are the kind that occasionally find their way into our living spaces – overnight in attics, barns and abandoned buildings as summer maternity colony habitats.

Except for extreme desert and polar regions, bats dwell in every kind of habitat on Earth. They provide crucial ecological services in most biodiverse regions of the world and possess some amazing attributes.

Among them, of course, is flight. Bats are the only mammal that can truly fly. One species, the Mexican free-tailed bat, can climb to 10,000 feet.

Bats can eat more than half their body weight in insects each summer night.

And farmers take note: many of those insects are known to cause billions of dollars in crop damage and spread disease to livestock.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that bats eat enough pests to save more than $1 billion per year in crop damage and pesticide costs in the US corn industry alone.

But in many parts of the world, Ontario included, this amazing creature is in decline, with some species facing extirpation, even extinction.

The threats to bats are multiple – habitat loss, disease, wind turbines and more.

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Large-scale industrial agricultural practices including eliminating fence lines and hedgerows and draining wetlands to enlarge crop fields also adversely impacts bats.

In the last decade or so a fungal infection known as White Nose Syndrome has taken a massive toll, especially on the little brown bat.

Irrational fear-based persecution by humans is a significant contributor to bat decline, and misconceptions about bats abound, including the fallacy that all bats carry rabies.

A surge in bat persecution has coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic. Conjecture that bats were the original vector for SARS-CoV-2 – there’s no proof of that – prompted communities in some countries to destroy entire colonies.

“Bats aren’t scary,” the Canadian Wildlife Federation said. “But their extinction is.”

Hanover-based bat specialist, Allan Kempert, said bat decline should be a concern for anyone who cares about biodiversity, species preservation and general ecosystem integrity.

Known locally as the “BatGuy,” Kempert is passionate about bats. Unlike the Batman of TV, movie and comic book fame, he doesn’t live in a Victorian mansion, employ a butler named Alfred, nor drive a turbine-powered armored car capable of anti-tank warfare.

Kempert’s batmobile is an aging Chevy Silverado, equipped only with the basic tools he needs to do his job, including ladders, sealant and a respirator.

The BatGuy’s services include humane bat removal from private homes, commercial buildings, churches and other structures. Closing entry points for bats and vacuuming up bat guano (poop) are others.

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An evolving appreciation of the ecosystem services provided by bats as well as their potential economic value led Kempert to integrate bat education and conservation into his work.

Kempert said he especially likes to talk bats with farmers who are open to learning about the potential economic value of bats to their farming operations.

The North American Bat Conservation Association has estimated that a single colony of 150 big brown bats in Indiana consumed nearly 1.3 million pest insects each year, likely contributing to the disruption of population cycles of agricultural pests.

Installing bat boxes is a simple and effective frontline conservation intervention to help restore Ontario’s bat population, Kempert said.

“If I had farmland, I would be erecting a bat house every year,” he added.

Sadly, with the exception of orchardists, bat conservation gets “very little traction” within Ontario’s farm community, Kempert said.

“I alternate between hope and despair,” University of Winnipeg biologist Craig Willis said about the future of bats. “We’re in the midst of this (Anthropocene) period of human-caused decline of thousands of species. We’re losing songbirds. We’re losing amphibians. We’re losing insects. We’re losing beats.”

“We’ve got to hold the line wherever we can,” Willis added.

Farmers or property owners wanting to install bat houses can apply for cost-share funding from the Species at Risk Farm Incentive Program (SARFIP) hosted by the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association.

Gary W. Kenny is retired from a career in international human rights and development and is a writer residing in rural Gray County.

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