Do bats and Halloween go together in your mind? Are you afraid of bats? Disgusted by them? Wish all bats were dead bats? Texans might seem prone to brag sometimes, but more often we are just telling the truth! When it comes to bats, Texas has ’em! And needs them because they are all most all good!
Their Range: Bats Fly All over Texas.
According to Janet Hurley, a school coordinator for the AgriLife Extension Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program, Bats can all be found living and flying all over Texas. They can live in many places besides abandoned mines or caves: they can nest in crevices under bridges, under tree bark or in hollow trees, or even in palm fronds. There is a colony of about a million and a half bats living in the city of Austin, TX, under the Congress Avenue Bridge, about a mile from the state capitol.
Some bat species also commonly roost in buildings, but only 11 of the thirty two species in Texas are willing to live that close to humans. Once they find a good roost, however, bats are creatures of habit and will return to the same place for many years.
Private Life of Bats
Want to known a bat-secret? Among mammals, only bats have true powers of flight. Other mammals, such as flying squirrels, only glide from a higher to a lower elevation. Being mammals, bats produce bat-milk to nurse their young (they are called pups). Most bat-mom’s have only one pup a year.
Another bat-secret? The phrase ‘blind as a bat’ is accurate. As a group, eyes are small and inefficient, but their ears are usually well developed. But bats are nocturnal, sleeping days and feeding at night. Their high-frequency vocals and their excellent hearing guide bats while flying and feeding.
Some bats hibernate in winter; others migrate seasonally. One of the most common species of bats in Texas is the Mexican free-tailed bat. When full grow, they are only 3 ½ inches long. Their pups are born in the spring or early summer but by late summer, the pups can fly and feed on their own. And feed they do!
Size Doesn’t Measure What Good Bats Do!
Contrary to the notion that everything is bigger in Texas, the bats found here are typically no larger than the size of an adult’s thumb or a child’s fist, that is, when the bat is folded up. But small size doesn’t hold bats down when it comes to doing good to the environment.
A bat’s diet consists of huge quantities of insects-bugs that can badly damage crops. Some species actually eat their own weight in insects each night. Multiply that by the number of bats you see flooding out of a cave and imagine the good they are doing! As an example, the largest colony of Mexican free-tailed bats in Texas is found at Bracken Cave, north of the city of San Antonio, Texas. There, nearly 20 million bats roost. When they fly out to feed at night, they congregate in huge numbers at high altitudes-between 600 and 3,300 feet up!-to feed on migrating corn earworms (also known as cotton bollworms). Imagine the damage these moths would do if not for the bats! And imagine almost 20 million pounds of moths—gone each night! Good for the bats!
Other bats drink nectar and pollinate fragile desert plants. Lesser long-nosed bats, for instance, are the principle pollinators of the Agave plant, a key ingredient in- yep! Tequila! And bat droppings (called guano) are a great organic high nitrogen fertilizer.
When Bats Are Dangerous
So when are bats dangerous? Rabies often gets brought up in connection with bats. The fact is, over the past 25 years, the U.S. has averaged 1.5 deaths a year by people exposed to rabies by bats. And those deaths were people who were not treated after exposure. Why? Either because they did not realize they’d been bitten or scratched, or else they did not understand the danger.
Is it OK to touch bats? According to one expert, any bat that can be approached by people, especially one laying on the ground, is probably either sick or injured and should be left alone. Oh, and the perennial question: What about Vampire Bats? The good news is that except in zoos, there are officially no vampire bats in North America. The bad news is they have recently been sighted about 125 miles south of the Texas border. To find a big colony though, you would have to travel all the way to South America.
So, are you ready for some bats this fall? If they scare you some dark night, remember: they are out to do you good, not harm. And they don’t like you any more than you like them!
-US Forest Service: “Celebrating Wildflowers”
-Meals That Heal: Agave and the connection to bat pollinators
-Wikipedia: Mexican Free-tailed Bat
-McCracken, Gary F: “Bats Aloft: A Study of High-Altitude Feeding” in BATS Magazine, Vol. 14, No. 3, pages 7-10. Bat Conservation International, Inc, 1996
-The Mammals of Texas – Online Edition