Bats eat blood, suck blood, but not yours, lecturer says

Lecturer explains the lives of bats at Lawrence Nature Center

By: Lea Kahn
   It’s pretty much what happens every night.
   "Bat," 8-year-old Connor Ward said.
   "Moth," 7-year-old Zachary Dutko said.
   "Bat," Connor said again as the blindfolded child reached out for Zachary.
   "Moth," Zachary answered, giggling as he circled around Connor.
   Finally, Connor the "bat" caught Zachary the "moth," a process Heather McNeil-Nazareth explained to the crowd of 30 people at the Lawrence Nature Center last week.
   Ms. McNeil-Nazareth, of the Mercer County Soil Conservation District, chose the two youngsters to illustrate how bats search for food, namely moths, as part of her presentation Aug. 17.
   Bats use "echo location" to find their prey, she said. Connor, playing the role of a bat, used his sense of hearing to find Zachary after he called out "moth."
   The night creatures emit high-pitched noises — too high for a human ear to pick up — that bounce off their prey, Ms. McNeil-Nazareth said. A bat sends 20 sounds per second, which increase to as much as 40 as it gets closer to an insect.
   "Bats are amazing creatures," she said. "A lot of people are scared to death of bats. People think they are scary, they are dirty and they get in your hair. (But) they eat insects — mosquitoes, beetles and other pests — which is a good thing."
   Bats come in many different sizes, from the bumble bee bat in the tropics that weighs about as much as a penny, to the fruit bat in Africa, which has a wing span of about 6 feet and eats only fruit, she said.
   While they don’t swoop down and drink blood from a human’s neck, vampire bats also exist, Ms. McNeil-Nazareth said. The vampire bats, which live only in Central and South America, wait for their prey to go to sleep. The creatures then make a little scratch on the animal until blood comes out, which they lick, she said.
   Bats that live in New Jersey, however, eat only insects, Ms. McNeil-Nazareth said. A little brown bat — one of nine types of bats in the state — can eat 600 to 1,200 insects an hour, she said.
   It can be a challenge for the bat to catch an insect in its mouth or in its wings, she said. That’s why bats in flight appear to have jerky motions. Their flight is not smooth, because they are removing insects from their wings, Ms. McNeil-Nazareth said.
   "A lot of people think bats are flying mice," she said. "They are not rodents, like squirrels or mice. They are mammals. They reproduce more slowly than rodents. They have one or two babies a year. Mice have several (litters of babies) in one year."
   Most bats live in colonies, but some live alone in trees. Bats also may live in a cave, she said. As many as 400 to 500 bats can live in 1 square foot of space on the wall of a cave. Mother bats take care of their own babies in the colony. They find their baby through a combination of sound and smell, she said.
   Bats also can find their way into a house’s attic, Ms. McNeil-Nazareth said. They look for a warm, dark place to raise their young. If a bat is flying around inside the house, that’s most likely because it has lost its way. She suggested turning on the lights and opening the windows in the room, then closing the door. The bat, which likes the dark, will find its way to the outdoors, she said.
   It is possible to build a special house just for bats, she said. The bat house, or bat box, should be hung about 10 to 15 feet above the ground. Bats will fly into the bat house and hang upside down inside of it. When they are ready to go out at night, they let themselves down and swoop out of the box, she said.
   After her lecture, Ms. McNeil-Nazareth guided her audience to a field behind the Lawrence Nature Center to look for bats — a quest that was quickly rewarded.
   Cries of "ooh, look at the bat" filled the air as children excitedly pointed fingers at a bat that flitted across the darkening sky in search of its dinner.
   "Bats are pretty cool animals," Ms. McNeil-Nazareth said. "They are fun to watch. One reason to put up a bat box is because in nature, they are losing places to raise their young. Five hundred years ago, they lived inside trees. They love dead or dying hollowed out trees, but today people are cutting the trees down."
   Ms. McNeil-Nazareth downplayed the notion that bats carry rabies. Fewer than 1 percent of bats have rabies. If a bat allows one to come close, it’s probably sick or injured, at which point the health department or an animal control officer should be called to remove the bat, she said.