Sep 20 2017

Why Bats in the Belfry Aren’t
Such a Terrible Thing


(This is part of our continuing series “HLT’s 20 Stories for 20 Years,” where we share, through words, images and audio, information about Hunterdon Land Trust and the places we all love in the Hunterdon County area.) 

What usually comes to mind when you think about bats? Halloween? Dracula? Ghosts and graveyards? Bats give lots of folks the heebie-jeebies, but the truth is our way of life in New Jersey would not be the same without them.

New Jersey is home to nine species of bats, six of which live here year-round. The ones we see most often are the big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus) and the little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus). These, in addition to the less-common small-footed bat (M. leibii), like to roost in manmade structures during the summer. The tri-colored bat (Perimyotis subflavus), northern long-eared bat (M. septentrionalis), and federally endangered Indiana bat (M. sodalis) prefer to roost beneath the peeling bark of trees like shagbark hickory or in the cavities of dead trees. All six of these species spend the winter hibernating in caves or mines, though some may overwinter in buildings. The hoary bat (Lasiurus cinereus), the eastern red bat (L. borealis), and the silver-haired bat (Lasionycterus noctivagans) are migratory bat species found in New Jersey during the summer that travel south for the winter. HLT’s Zega-Lockatong Preserve has been identified as potential habitat for both the Indiana bat and the northern long-eared bat.

What makes bats so important to New Jersey is their impact on agriculture. New Jersey’s bats are insectivores, meaning they eat mainly insects. Bats are the only major predator of nocturnal insects, and they eat a massive amount of them each night. Many of the bugs they munch on are agricultural pests, like the green stink bug that inflicts major damage to soybeans, peas, tomatoes and corn. Without the bats to reduce the populations of pests like these, farmers would need to use a lot more pesticides each year to protect their crops. Bats save agricultural producers across the U.S. $22.9 billion on average each year, just by eating bugs!

Besides habitat destruction, the greatest threat to cave-roosting bats is a disease known as White Nose Syndrome (WNS). WNS is caused by a fungus that manifests as a powdery white substance on the face, ears, and wings of bats, typically while they are hibernating. WNS has killed over 5.7 million bats in the eastern United States, but according to the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife, bat populations may be starting to recover.

Bats will not intentionally “dive-bomb” humans; however, they occasionally do get stuck in houses, and fly frantically around trying to escape. If a bat enters your home, remain calm and close doors to isolate the bat in one room. Open all the windows and remove the screens. Turn off the lights, and stand quietly in the corner of the room until the bat flies out. Do not attempt to handle a bat, even by covering it with a sweatshirt, as they can carry rabies.

If you are interested in helping conserve bat habitat, consider installing a bat box on a tree or pole. See wildlife.rutgers.edu for information on construction and proper placement.

Seen any bats around lately? Be sure to post it to our HLT Community Map!

— By Land Steward Stefani Spence


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