By M. Keith Hudson
Gray bats leaving a cave. Photo by Scot Clem; Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Bats are a tremendously misunderstood group of wildlife.
Consider the clichés “blind as a bat,” “gone batty,” or “crazy as a bat”—and you can likely think of several others.
In reality, bats are not blind at all. Though they can carry rabies, just being around them does not cause craziness or stupidity. Nor should they be categorized as bad wildlife.
Hollywood horror films as well as some children’s stories have often misrepresented these fascinating mammals by falsely presenting them as evil, aggressive, blind, dirty or bloodsucking and harboring excessive levels of rabies.
Bats are extremely beneficial and eat thousands of mosquitoes every night, but humans and bats are not good company for each other.
The phrase “Do you have bats in your belfry?” often implies ignorance or stupidity, but it could also refer to bats found in manmade structures such as attics, barns and steeples, a common location for a belfry. So, some folks do have bats in their belfry or, more precisely, in their home’s eaves or attic.
These structures can be the perfect habitat for some species of colonial bats (bats that gather in groups to raise young or to hibernate). This is particularly true each spring when bats are having their young. For about a two-week period, from birth to fledging, young bats can’t fly and may be encountered crawling around in walls, attics and chimneys or even inside rooms.
Gray Bat Photo courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service
This often results in frantic telephone calls to animal control officers, wildlife agencies or commercial pest control companies. Regrettably, most pest control companies are very reluctant to deal with bats and often refer the caller to a wildlife agency.
Wildlife agencies can suggest steps homeowners may take to control problem bats, and can advise a homeowner how to deal with their problem. Usually the last resort is a commercial wildlife control business.
So what should do you do if bats move into your belfry or your attic?
In almost all situations, the bats need not be killed or eradicated, but can simply be excluded from the building. Exclusion is always preferable to eradication. In rare instances when eradication is recommended, it is best to use a professional wildlife control business.
In most cases, bats enter and exit a building at a specific location. By preventing access—or a way back in the building once the bats have left–you can effectively and simply solve the problem.
Proceed by waiting until the evening when all the bats have exited the building. Locate the entrance site, and then cover it with boards, wire or hardware cloth. If flightless young are present, it is best to wait until they are flying and have also left before covering the opening.
It is extremely important to wait until all bats have left or you may trap bats in the building. If you have ever smelled a dead mouse in your house, then you can appreciate the wisdom of not trapping bats or causing them to die within your house.
If there is more than one opening to your attic, you may have to close off all of them. There are also devices that can be installed that act as one-way doors, allowing bats out, but not back in. Sometimes the problem is more about bat guano (bat droppings) that has accumulated over a long period. For health and sanitation reasons, guano should be removed, and a professional should be consulted.
In very rare instances where the bats are so numerous, the guano so extensive and/or exclusion is impossible because of the nature of the structure, the entire building may be razed or destroyed. This usually happens in abandoned buildings where the problem has developed over a long period.
Though bats can occasionally cause problems within buildings, they are indeed highly beneficial creatures eating a prolific number of insects each night. Worldwide, bats provide notable health benefits by controlling disease-causing insects.
Some tropical bats disperse plants seeds in their droppings, which is very important for reseeding tropical forests.
Some bats are pollinators and are critical to the very existence of some plants including mangos, dates, breadfruit, figs, bananas and organ pipe and Saguaro cacti.
Next time you’re asked, “Do you have bats in your belfry?” perhaps you can say, “Not anymore. I’ve managed them very well—thank you very much.”
-- M. Keith Hudson / Alabama Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries