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A bat with a fuzzy head and large round eyes clings to the handler’s gloved hand
Information icon Robin is an Egyptian fruit bat. Photo by Nicole Vidal, USFWS.

They come out at night

Alabama bat count draws biologists, enthusiasts

Irondale, Alabama – Was she pregnant? She wasn’t cooperating, so it was hard to tell.

Researchers turned illuminated headgear to a struggling big brown bat, snagged moments earlier in a nearly invisible net.

Winston Lancaster, who works for the University of Alabama-Birmingham’s biology department, took a closer look. “She’s got a nice, big fat belly,” said Lancaster.

The bat apparently took umbrage at his comment. Tiny teeth flashed.

“Go ahead,” said Lancaster. “Bite – the glove, not the finger.”

Call it an occupational hazard. Lancaster, and others working on a recent bat count, understood: You may like bats, but don’t expect them to like you back.

Lancaster and others participated in Bat Blitz,a two-day celebration of the web-wing creatures that come out at night. The June 28-29 event, sponsored by the Alabama Bat Working Group, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the state’s bat population, hosted the gathering.

two biologists inspect the wing of a small bat.
Biologists use a flashlight to inspect the health of a bat’s wing. Photo by Nicole Vidal, USFWS.

This year, researchers caught and released more than 600 bats comprising six species. State, federal and volunteer workers took them from 18 sites around Birmingham.

The 2017 blitz, like those that preceded it, attempted to spread a little bat understanding – and, perhaps, some bat love. Bat experts invited the public to spend a few moments regarding a creature that’s suffered from a PR problem. Most folks just don’t understand bats, or what they do.

It’s an oversight with billion-dollar consequences.

‘Unaware of bats’

The next time you don’t swat a mosquito, thank a bat. A typical bat eats 3,000 insects every night, many of those little bloodsuckers we all hate. Bats’ love of mosquitoes and other insect pests has implications beyond back-yard entertaining, too. Federal officials estimate bats’ insect appetite saves farmers \$3 billion annually.

They are a wonder, said wildlife biologist Nicholas Sharp. He works for the Alabama Department of Conservation’s Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, and is a long-time bat fan. He joined others in the count.

In a recent interview, he recalled sitting in his dad’s boat as a teen, watching as many as 50,000 bats exit a cave at Alabama’s Lake Guntersville. They spewed from the mouth of the cave, a dark cloud moving fast and low. The boy who became a biologist never forgot the sight.

“It was really cool,” he said. It’s a coolness he wishes others understood. “People,” he said, “are unaware of bats.”

A woman holding a small bad in a gloved hand.
Vicky Beckham Smith holding Robin the bat. Photo by Nicole Vidal, USFWS.

Nor are most familiar with white-nose syndrome, a fatal disease with devastating effectiveness.  Discovered in a New York cave a decade ago, WNS is now in 31 states and five Canadian provinces. In some areas, the fatality rate has exceeded 90 percent.

In June, the Service announced that biologists had discovered WNS among southeastern bats, another species, in a cave in Alabama.

Bat counters were keeping a close look out for southeastern bats, said Shannon Holbrook, who works in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Daphne, Ala., field office.

“We’re kind of worried about that population,” she said.

‘Really important’

Vicky Beckham Smith laid a gloved hand on the small bundle of life inside the plastic container. The creature within struggled once, a wing flapping. When she withdrew her hand, Smith held Myotis lucifugus – a brown bat. They thrive in Alabama.

The bat, named Suzie, crawled under the small space provided between Smith’s thumb and palm. Full grown, Suzie may weigh 1 ounce.

No, most bats aren’t big, said Smith, a self-proclaimed Bat Lady from Fayetteville, Ga., who’s been dealing with the winged mammals for 21 years. She’s so bat-ty that Smith routinely wears clothing decorated with Batman buttons and other decorations featuring the web-winged fliers. But that doesn’t lessen their stature.

Yes, the adornments are a bit frivolous. Smith wears them to underscore bats’ role in our lives.

“Our bats,” she said, “are really important to our environment.”

And, she admitted, not the sort of animal everyone likes. Wondrous, yes. Cuddly? Remember that bat-finger encounter at the beginning of this article.

“They are a little spooky,” said Smith, “Even the Bat Lady’s been known to scream.”

The blitz made a bat believer out of Darryl Burton, a Birmingham resident who turned out with his daughter and niece to learn a little more about the night fliers in his midst. For Burton, a bat is “kind of a spirit animal.” Five years ago, a bat inadvertently flew into his house. He stayed up late trying to shoo the bat back outside, said Burton. That same night, he had a heart attack.

“If I’d been asleep instead of chasing that bat…” his voice trailed off.

Burton also came away with an enhanced appreciation for bats. Who knew they ate so many bugs?

“It was interesting,” Burton said. “If another (bat blitz) was to happen, I could see us coming back.”

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