Sunday, August 15, 2010

On Bats, Pets, and the Natural World

We have a bat on our porch. It's a little brown bat, Myotis lucifugus, who hangs out where two of the log support beams meet under the porch roof. I've been looking for bats flying around our property at dusk all summer long but never saw any until we noticed Sugar Booger. We probably would never have known s/he was there until the pile of bat poop on the porch grew into a noticeable pile.

Usually Sugar Booger is wedged into the narrow gap between two logs and you can hardly see her/him, but little brown bats look a lot like a furry brown kiwi fruit with leathery wings. I've seen them before on the few times I've been spelunking. Most of my experience with caving has been limited to hauling myself up and under rock formations, sometimes through crevices so narrow that I was certain that my helmet was going to get permanently wedged in there. I have fond memories of squirming under the massive boulder of Fat Man's Misery in Tawney's Cave. I have never done anything with ropes and I have always been in a small group of people that always include a trip leader who had past experience with that particular cave. I've always found spelunking a fun way to spend time getting wet and muddy underground, but now I don't know if I'd go back into a cave. It's not that I'm facing 40 and should know better, but rather I'm concerned about white nose syndrome affecting U.S. bat populations and I know better.

White nose syndrome is a condition where infected bats have a distinctive ring of white fungal growth around their muzzles. Infected bats are underweight, appear to have respiratory complications, and seem be emerging from hibernation early than they should, when little food is available and temperatures are still very cold. It is not known if the fungal infection is the primary cause of death or if it is an opportunistic infection on bats sickened by other causes. As stated in Wikipedia's entry on White nose syndrome, "As of May 2009, bat colonies have been decimated in at least seven states, with an estimated half a million bats having died from the disease. This deprives the country, especially during the spring and summer, of a valuable natural pesticide as bats consume huge quantities of insects: as much as their own body weight each night. The Forest Service estimates that the die-off from white-nose syndrome means that at least 2.4 million pounds of bugs (1.1million kg) will go uneaten and become a financial burden to farmers. Crop production may require more insecticide, raising environmental worries and pushing up grocery prices." (Wikipedia, White_nose_syndrome, accessed Aug 5, 2010).

The impact of white nose syndrome on bat populations has me worried. I like bats. I always have. I'm not afraid of them and I enjoy watching them come out at dusk. We should have oodles of bats here at the new house and I've only seen a couple. Frankly, I can't be certain that there isn't more than one and I've only seen Sugar Booger flying around. I know white nose syndrome has been verified in the area and this may explain why we don't have more bats here. This saddens me greatly.

You may be asking yourself why in God's name I call this bat Sugar Booger. No, it's not my pet. I don't expect it to come when I call it, I don't expect it to know its name, and I don't expect it to be a friendly Disney forest creature. Ideally the bat shouldn't be aware of me at all. It's a cutesy name for a decidedly less than cute creature. However, it's a fun name and Ally seems to like it, and that's why the bat is named Sugar Booger. I want Ally to be interested in the bat and not fear it. I want her to learn more about this bat and respect it for the wild creature it is. I want our daughter to appreciate the natural world, to observe its infinite variety and beauty, and to understand why it's such an important facet of our lives. And every other day or so we'll be on the front porch and she'll want to go look at the bat. Sometimes Sugar Booger is in her/his roost, but other times s/he isn't there and we'll just look at the pile of bat poop. (Like all toddlers, Ally is always very impressed with poop regardless of the maker.)

I'm hoping very much that this isn't the only time Ally ever sees a wild bat in her lifetime.

PS--It's not uncommon for little brown bats to roost by themselves around man-made structures, so I don't want anyone to get their panties in a twist about this being strange bat behavior and therefore Sugar Booger must be carrying rabies. Clearly we would take preventive action to protect ourselves if we suspected that this bat was sick, but so far all Sugar Booger does is hang upside down, sleep, and poop. That's perfectly normal for a bat, so Sugar Booger is welcomed to hang out under our porch roof and eat bugs all summer long.

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