If you’re lucky enough to be outside at dusk on a reasonably warm evening you might see something darting through the air at seemingly nothing. It could be a moth, maybe a bird out late, but most likely, a bat.
I was out at twilight trying to get my bird baths filled for the following day when I thought I saw something zip past out of the corner of my eye. I stood still and waited for movement. There it was again. I tried to track it, but it was moving too fast. "What the heck are you?" I said out loud.
"What do you mean?" came a little voice. I looked around trying to find out where the voice was coming from and finally found a little brown doo-hickey clinging to the stucco on the side of my house. "Was that your voice I heard?" I asked. "Well, let’s see," it said, its furry head looking around. "I don’t see anyone else here."
"Are you a…a…bat?" I asked, moving back a few steps. "Yes, specifically a Mexican free-tailed bat," she said. "Name’s Pam. And, why did you take a few steps back just then?" "Well," I whispered. "I didn’t want you to get caught in my hair." "Get caught…in your hair?" she said incredulously. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" "I’m sorry, Pam," I said apologetically. "I’d heard that bats can fly into your hair." She shook her fuzzy little brown head. "Let me tell you something about us bats."
"First of all, we’re mammals, same as you," she said in an instructor tone of voice. "We Mexican free-tailed bats are the most common bats in our area. There are also pallid bats, little brown bats and big brown bats, to name a few." "Don’t the little brown bats and big brown bats have actual names?" I said jokingly. "Those ARE their real names," she said annoyed. "I didn’t name them. Don’t judge." "Okay, sorry about that," I said cautiously. "Bats are myth-understood," she said with a chuckle. "There are more myths about us than any other animal, and frankly," she said, the smile disappearing from her face. "I’m getting a little weary of it. What’s wrong with you hairless mammals anyway?" "Well," I said. "We’re not really hairless. I may have less hair than I used to, but there’s no need to be insulting." "That’s not what I meant," she interrupted. "Compared to the rest of the mammals in the world, you’re hairless." "Now, where was I?" she said with her claw on her chin looking skyward. "Oh, yeah, we’re also the only mammal that can truly fly. There are more than 900 species of us in the world. Between 12 to 16 bat species in the Bay Area alone. Almost one-quarter of the world’s 4,400 species of mammals are bats."
"Our young are born live and feed on milk that we produce. We have one pup at a time that we care for in maternal colonies. We can distinguish the call of our own pup out of thousands of others. Some of us are solitary, some species form colonies of up to a million individuals. The most famous colony lives in a cave near San Antonio, Texas, with a population of 20,000,000 individuals. We eat loads of insects and are some of the best pollinators in the world. Our tail is almost half our total length and stretches beyond the membrane between our legs, giving us the name "free-tailed" bats. To avoid harsh winters some bats migrate, others hibernate and some of us go into a torpor to save energy and keep warm. That would be me." "How’s your eyesight?" I asked, regretting it the moment I said it. "I was really hoping the "blind as a bat" thing had died a natural death," she said. "Just so you know, the California leaf-nosed bat has night vision far superior to the best man-made night scope. Our need for echolocation is not because we’re blind, but to help us find prey in the dark."
"So," I said, super carefully this time. "What exactly do you…uh, eat?" "Oh," she said her eyes narrowing. "I can see where you’re going with this. You think we drink blood, don’t you?" "No, no, no!" I said quickly. She looked at me sadly. "Only vampire bats drink blood, Joanie. Vampires live in South America, Central America and parts of Mexico and generally feed on livestock. I prefer flying insects, mainly mosquitos. There is a very low density of skeeters in this area, consequently, there are less bats. The mosquitos here are downright skimpy, but we can "see" them using echolocation for navigation. And, THIS part is really cool, so pay attention. We can emit ultrasonic vocalizations which have the effect of jamming the echolocation calls of a rival bat species hunting moths. The "jamming" call leads to an increased chance of our rival missing its prey, which we are then able to eat ourselves." Pam laughed so hard I thought she was going to fall off the side of the house.
But then, suddenly, Pam became very quiet. Her ears twitched as she stared intently right at me. I’m not sure I’d seen a mammal so focused. "Pam," I said nervously. "Wha…what’s the matter? What are you looking at?" I began to slowly step backward. Pam suddenly launched herself off the side of the house heading straight towards me. I instantly forgot everything she told me about bats instead reverting to scary childhood myths about hair and vampires. I put my hands up in front of my face with my fingers in the shape of a cross. I don’t know why. I think I saw it in an old Steve Martin movie way back in the late seventies. But, did it work? I don’t remember. Wait, how old am I anyway? Oh well, I was desperate. With teeth bared she headed straight towards my face, snatched something off my nose and veered away. "Hoo!" said Pam. "THAT was the biggest mosquito I’ve ever had!"
Bless the Bats ~ Joanie and Annie