Have a little sympathy for the hardworking bats you can still see in the evenings flying around Puget Sound. As long as the weather doesn’t get cold and nasty, and there are still bugs to catch, the little guys won’t go into their winter hibernation.
If you’re taking an evening walk around Green Lake, you can spot them near the bathhouse on the north end. Don’t get scared. They just want to fill up on insects, which each bat can eat by the thousands a night.
But someone like Tom Rodhouse, a National Park Service ecologist out of Bend, Oregon, who researches the creatures, knows what bat anxiety-inducing vision might cross your thoughts.
COVID-19. Somewhere among all the news stories that get embedded in you, the details might be fuzzy, but the linkage is there between bats and the pandemic.
No, no. Stop. Not in this continent.
“The coronaviruses are not harbored or found in North American bats,” he says.
The epicenter of the COVID outbreak was in Wuhan, China, probably at a “wet market,” called that because it has live fish in tanks and various live wild animals caged side-by-side and slaughtered.
It is in China that a particular species of bats, the horseshoe bat, which gets its name from the shape of its nose that is thought to sharpen sonar, was a likely carrier of this particular coronavirus. How it jumped to humans is still being studied.
In North America, says Rodhouse, “the greatest irony” is that researchers worry about humans transferring the virus to bats, not the other way around.
That’s why the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife is recommending that bats taken in for rehab at this time not be released back out into wild, and that rehabbers not take in any more bats.
At Bats Northwest, Barbara Ogaard is very familiar with our bat phobia.
“Bats have always had a bad rap. It’s always been like that, all those movies with vampires and stuff,” she says.
Ogaard has been with the nonprofit since it started in 1996 and is known for her many appearances before community groups. She drives up in a 2009 Jeep with the vanity license plate, “The Bat Lady.”
The volunteer group in Seattle is used to dispelling our suspicions about these creatures.
That’s why the national park system, with its 84 million acres, which includes 47 kinds of bats, issued this statement on April 20:
“. . . none of the bat species in North America are known to have the virus that causes COVID-19.”
But it’s tough for bat advocates to get past bat prejudices.
“Bats in western culture have long been the subjects of disdain and persecution and have often been depicted in the popular media as rampant vectors of disease, bloodsucking demons, ingredients of witches brews, and, at times, associated with the dark side of some religious practices,” summarized a 2011 paper in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
The paper was titled, “Ecosystem services provided by bats.” The researchers explain how bats are voracious consumers of insects that otherwise would cause drastic damage to agricultural crops and forests. (Another paper, in 2011, says that without bats, agricultural losses in North America would be more than $3.7 billion a year.)
“Without bats, say goodbye to bananas, avocados and mangoes,” says a U.S. Department of the Interior release. “Over 300 species of fruit depend on bats for pollination.” It’s been said that without bats there would be no tequila, as they pollinate the agave desert plant.
A typical bat seen around these parts is no monstrous creature. If you held two or three quarters in your hand, you’d have the weight of one of the Northwest bats, such as the little brown bat — named because it is little and it is brown.
In the past, the Bats Northwest group would lead summer “bat walks” in June around Green Lake using ultrasound detectors that lowered the frequency of the bat as it hunted bugs, so it was audible to humans. That’s all been canceled this year because of the pandemic.
At 80, Ogaard remembers when as a child in Massachusetts she was frightened of bats.
“I believed everything my grandma told me about them, sucking blood, to keep my chin down when walking at night,” she says.
Right now, at her Bothell home, she is rehabbing 14 bats that arrived before the Fish and Wildlife recommendation. So, obviously, she’s not afraid of them.
Some of those 14 bats were injured, likely by cats, and are in cages in one of the bathrooms.
The others are outside in a shed, mostly male juveniles who ended up on the ground and hadn’t yet figured out how to take care of themselves. Ogaard says that in many bat species, the males leave the original family and aren’t allowed back.
Her husband of 52 years, Kaare Ogaard, a retired tugboat captain, has gotten used to having bats around. “We just kind of worked it out,” she says. It helped that in his tugboat days, he was gone a lot.
Ogaard’s background includes earning a zoology degree from the University of Washington and working as a park ranger at Seattle’s Discovery Park, and at a clinic that treated injured wildlife.
The uninformed might see a rather ugly creature, maybe from images of bats snarling and showing their pointy teeth. Not Ogaard.
“They’re super clean. They spend 30% of their time grooming,” says Ogaard. “They have beautiful fur, silky and fluffy. When they’re not frightened, they’re quite handsome. Little tiny eyes, little nose.”
There are 15 kinds of bats in the Northwest. They include the hoary bat, which can fly as high as 8,000 feet when it migrates south during the winter, and hang on trees to look like a dry leaf. Then there are canyon bats, found in the desert parts of Eastern Washington, the smallest bat in the country, weighing from one-tenth to one-fifth of an ounce.
Of course, bat experts want you to be careful around the only flying mammal in the world.
One reason that bats have been on Earth for over 52 million years, and diversified into over 1,200 species, is that they have developed a powerful antiviral immune system that is perpetually switched on.
The main worry about bats here is rabies, with bats “the only reservoir of rabies in Washington,” according to the state’s Department of Health.
If left untreated, rabies almost always leads to death.
In this state, in the past 50 years, says the agency, there have only been two reported cases of infection due to bat rabies, it says, the last one in 1997.
Really, it’s the health of the bats here that we need to worry about.
Since 2007, a deadly fungus began attacking the bats in the Eastern United States. Millions of bats have died. The fungus — not harmful to humans, pets or other wild animals — invades their skin while the bats hibernate. It creates a white fuzz on the faces of bats, hence its name, the white-nose syndrome.
It makes bats more active than usual and burn up fat they need to survive the winter, with bats sometimes doing strange things like flying outside in the daytime, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Since 2016 it’s been confirmed in Washington state, although the number of cases is small.
If only we could learn from other cultures not to be afraid of bats, says Rodhouse.
“They don’t see bats as abhorrent. They’re depicted in a really delicate light,” he says.
When Rodhouse gives talks about bats, he shows slides of ceramics from ancient China.
One shows a porcelain saucer with five bats with five peaches to symbolize good luck and longevity.
Another is a vase from the same time period, with red bats and clouds, as red bats are considered especially lucky.
So try and see the beauty in those beady eyes and little pointed teeth.
Says Rodhouse, “They’re not out to harm anybody. They’re not aggressive. They don’t want anything to do with us.”