Burton on the Bay

Vol. 8, No. 13
March 30-April 5, 2000
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Bats in the Burton Belfry

Twinkle, twinkle little bat!
How I wonder what you’re at!
Up above the world you fly,
Like a tea tray in the sky.

       	—Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Lewis Carroll, 1865

thought of Lewis’ adaptation of Jane Taylor’s “The Star,” published in Rhymes for the Nursery in 1810, when out in the lawn the other evening.

My first and only conquest of a bat was as a youngster. My weapon wasn’t a tea tray but the ice tray from a new refrigerator at the New England farm of the Burtons.

Many years later, as the sky was going from gray to black over Stoney Creek in North County, two bats hunted in the sky — for what I don’t know seeing as the evening was too chilly for common insects. Maybe in daytime some bugs come out of hibernation or whatever state they’re in over the winter, but this evening wasn’t conducive for flights of insects of the type I assume bats eat.

I was surprised to see the pair of bats. I assumed they would be snuggled up indoors. Hopefully not in the Burton attic, which is supposedly bat and rodent proof — though occasionally our cat Frieda goes bananas when she hears a stray squirrel romp on the rafters above the ceiling. So much for unwanted entry; so much, too, for effectiveness of the tight-meshed ventilating screen that I was told by the installer would keep anything out.

Certainly our household is not the only one here or anywhere that provides a tiny crack to allow the entrance and exit of bats. They’re ingenious intruders, and seldom do their hosts realize they’re utilizing an attic, shed, barn of whatever for rest stops between flights. If only they knew — but best they don’t. People, for the most part, are afraid of bats.

Eek! A Bat!

We’re told that fear of bats is a wasted emotion, but much as the bat boosters attempt to allay fright of these interesting ghost-like creatures, they haven’t done much to boost their image.

It’s as with snakes. Reptile buffs wage a relentless campaign to convince us all crawling things with no shoulders are in fact harmless, more afraid of us than we are of them. But tell that to someone who has looked a menacing rattler or copperhead in the eye.

What else can we think of bats? Practically from the beginning of the written word — quite possibly long before then — there has been an abundance of legend and folklore about bats, much of it involving association with vampires.

Stories abound about sinister bats sucking blood from humans as they sleep — though as some legends have it, one doesn’t even have to be asleep. Tales aplenty, too, about bats trying to get into women’s hair — though the length of hair on the fair sex these days would probably make some men a better target for a bat with a hair fetish.

I didn’t relate my bat observation to wife Lois, whose wariness about bats, regardless of species, is akin to that of most people. In warmer weather, a few mosquitoes will send her packing indoors, but just the mention of a bat will do likewise. If she knew how many were silently winging about in chase of the very mosquitoes that cause her discomfort, I believe there would still be no expression of appreciation.

Simply put, most people don’t like bats. They could eat every mosquito and any other pesky thing with wings in the yard and they still wouldn’t get the thank you purple martins do for their airborne hunts. No living creature, regardless of its species, needs a public relations specialist more than the bat.

Bat Facts

There are many species of bat, but over the years I’ve not learned to identify any of them — though I do know the hoary bat, Lasiurus cinereus, is the largest we have in the Northeast, what with a wingspan that can stretch 16 inches on a stubby body of only about 51&Mac218;2 inches in length.

Now to have something like that unexpectedly swoop down and skim the top of my noggin some evening might send even me indoors, I must admit. The largest of Northeastern bats, its body is yellow-brown to dark brown with ominous silver frosting. Throat and wing linings are buff.

This big, short-eared bat is solitary by nature, usually flying high over treetops in late evening in its search for food. In winter when scavenging for insects is pretty much nil, it migrates. The bats I saw were smaller and presumably non-migrants. Who knows, they might have wintered over in the attic, though I can’t find any new holes in the ventilating screen at the peak of the roof.

I find it fascinating to watch bats on the prowl — they’re so swift, and can turn on a dime, dart and dive as fast if not faster than anything with wings or feet. And think of what they’re doing to the insect population hereabouts: No bug zapper or exterminator can match their effectiveness.

But I didn’t always feel that way — and don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to go out and buy one of those bat houses touted in bird catalogs. Bats — I’ll take them or leave them. They have a niche in the ecosystem and I’ve no objections to their visits — as long as they stay outdoors where they’re supposed to be.

Burton’s Bat Kill

The first bat I encountered was a small flitty creature that somehow entered the kitchen of our New England farm home one evening when our parents were out. Now that was back in the days when my sister Ruth and I still feared bats, holding them in lower esteem back then than even today.

It was during the Great Depression, and the Burtons were the proud owners of a new glistening white General Electric refrigerator, quite a status symbol back then. The old ice box had gotten the heave-ho. Ruth and I decided we had to save our siblings — Johnny the baby, Ticy and Lorna — from the furred intruder. I started swatting at it with the ironing board.

It was too fast for me, its radar alerted it of my impending swats; my success was about the same as that of Casey with his bat on that memorable day in verse. I spied one of the shiny new ice cube trays Ruth was about to fill when the bat was first noticed, grabbed it — and on the first stroke hit a home run. Our siblings were saved.

Saved from what? An occasional bat might be infected with rabies, but nothing to fear. These creatures, the only mammal that can truly fly, are harmless.

All that talk about blood-sucking vampire bats in the Northeast is hogwash. In his Country-Lover’s Guide to Wildlife, Kenneth A. Chambers tell us “the only bats to lap (not suck) blood are found in parts of Mexico, south into northern South America.”

And contrary to folklore, they are not people who have turned into bats. I regret doing that bat in more than 60 years ago, but these latest bats puzzle me. Where did they come from?

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly