Going Slightly Batty

My wariness of bats – I won’t say abject terror, that’s far too strong – dates back to the Eisenhower era.

I can even trace it to a particular evening in 1952 (the year of the green Pontiac Pathfinder), when a bat suddenly swooped through the living room of our rented cottage in Quebec.

I blame my Irish Granny. Not for the bat’s presence, but for my nine-year-old’s reaction to it.

Have nothing to do with bats, she had warned us repeatedly. They’re vicious creatures that will get tangled in your hair and “suck the blood right out of you.”

In fact, it had happened to someone she knew.

So that summer evening, as my older brothers wielded brooms at opposite ends of the room, attempting to persuade the terrified intruder toward the screen door Mom was holding open, my uppermost thought was, “Please God, don’t let it come near my hair.”

More than 50 years later, in a Marsh Lake attic, I chanced upon the shriveled cadavers of about a dozen little bats nestled in the insulation.

My reaction was mixed. Surprise, certainly. Shock, perhaps. Sadness, definitely.

But also, I’m ashamed to admit, a certain chill of fear as Granny’s dire warnings echoed somewhere in my limbic brain.

If I touched them, would I get rabies? Or fleas? Or bird flu? If I swept up their excrement, would I instantly succumb to hantavirus?

Which begs the question: why would I voluntarily spend a rain-threatened evening two weeks ago, marching single-file with a score of strangers along a well-worn trail above Chadburn Lake, just to get up-close and personal with a horde of bats?

I still don’t know the answer, but I’m glad I did.

The occasion was a “bat talk” led by Carrie McClelland of Environment Yukon’s wildlife viewing program.

Not only was it a chance to see these shy creatures in their natural habitat, it was a great exercise in myth-dispelling.

Blind as a bat? Wrong. Bats actually have pretty good eyesight.

Bats in your belfry – as in not quite all there? Wrong again. The bat is smart enough to hunt at night, when there are few predators apart from owls to worry about.

A mouse with wings? Still wrong, despite what the Strauss operetta Die Fledermaus would have you believe.

As McClelland put it, the bat is more like a grizzly bear, at least in its life cycle.

Unlike a mouse, which produces large litters during a short lifespan, a bat can live upwards of 30 years, but produce only a single pup every year or so.

Smaller varieties, such as the Little Brown Bat which is the most common in Yukon, likely descend from shrews, while the larger varieties may have evolved from lemurs.

A few more bat facts:

It’s the only mammal that truly flies. The melodramatic flying squirrel merely glides.

If a bat gets tangled in your hair, it’s simple pilot error. And it won’t suck your blood.

Its droppings don’t spread hantavirus. The few parasites it may host don’t affect humans. Since 1925, bats have infected only five Canadians with rabies – none in Yukon.

Females and their young roost separately from the males, in larger clusters for extra warmth.

Bat talks are scheduled this Friday in Teslin and Saturday in Watson Lake. See http://www.env.gov.yk.ca/wildlifebiodiversity/wildlifetalks.php for details.

Among other happy facts to be learned: a single Little Brown Bat can rid the world of up to 1,200 mosquitoes in an hour.

So I tip my hat to the Little Brown Bat.

But I intend to keep my hair short, just in case.

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