Reconsidering bats

Posted 10/25/22

REGION — It has happened more than once, the eerie tell-tale flapping in the house. Just last year the sound alerted me, and sure enough, one was circumambulating the bedroom, oddly in tandem …

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Reconsidering bats


REGION — It has happened more than once, the eerie tell-tale flapping in the house. Just last year the sound alerted me, and sure enough, one was circumambulating the bedroom, oddly in tandem with the ceiling fan.

“Somebody! Quick! Google how to get a bat out of the house!” And then one aging writer bellied his way across the floor with towel in hand, ready to capture the intruder if it made a low dive toward him.

“Google says open the doors or windows,” came the instant response. Surely that’s how the bat entered in the first place, and fortunately that’s how it found its way out, returning to its more worthy work of devouring bugs.

The rhythmic pulse of their flapping is unlike any bird’s, their presence heavier than any feathered thing. Swooping and diving, they pump the air with their leathery umbrella wings.

And should one be circling your bedroom, you too might recoil. So many of us are wary of these spooky ones—bats!

But why this fear and revulsion at the sight of one? What is it about bats that unsettles? Perhaps part of it is their elusive nature, at once bird-like, yet not a bird, and mammal-like, yet unlike others that more reliably walk on earth.

What world do such liminal creatures truly belong in? Lovers of the dark, by day they secrete themselves away in caves, behind shutters, in the folds of curtains. Only in evening do they emerge, stealing into the shadowy air often in large droves.

Over the centuries, they have come to represent dark forces. In medieval art figures from hell are often depicted with bat wings as opposed to the soft white feathery wings of angels.

Because of their unique role in the animal world, bats have inspired folklore and mythology in many cultures, such as Greek, Native American, the Pacific Islands, India and China. According to one origin myth from India, bats were originally unhappy birds who prayed to become humans. Their prayers were partially answered as they attained hair, teeth and human faces yet remained bird-like.

From Shakespeare on, poets have alluded to or written entire poems about them. In his poem “The Bat,” the American poet, Theodore Roethke, refers to them as cousins to mice with strangely unsettling human faces.

Read the entire poem at

There is one important corrective to Roethke’s poetic license. Bats are not rodents at all. They are an entirely different species, related only through their common mammalian ancestry. Including over 1,300 varieties, bats rank second to rodents in the total number of types, ranging in size from the tiny bumblebee bat—measuring only a few inches in length—to the flying foxes of Samoa, with a wingspan of over three feet. Definitely not one you would want in your bedroom.

In appearance, too, they range wildly. Some have large rabbit-like ears, others charming dog-like faces, some with pink wrinkled snouts that only a mother could love, and others spiked and horned, with a demeanor evoking Darth Vader. In fact, the costume designer of the “Star Wars” bar scene might well have studied bat faces for inspiration.

If you are curious to see a more complete gallery of bat portraits, you might visit the website devoted to the work of Merlin Tuttle, a pre-eminent bat expert who has studied the species for decades, at

And then there is the question of disease. It is a common perception that bats carry rabies, and it is true that on occasion they do. Scientists have found, though, that they are far less likely to carry the dread disease than skunks. They do carry other viruses, as do other animals.

And yes, there are blood-sucking vampire bats, but only three varieties, all of which live in South and Central America. Apparently, they prefer the blood of livestock over humans.

The mention of vampire bats, of course, immediately evokes the image and story of Dracula, and further, a direct connection between bats and Halloween. The elusive count, immortalized in Bela Lugosi’s classic film portrayal, morphs into and out of a vampire bat that steals through bedroom windows to prey on innocent maidens. “I am Dracula,” says the suave yet sinister Lugosi, with the rolled “r” of his Transylvania accent. Then in a second, he transforms into a bat and flaps away into the night. How many children have strolled the streets with candy-filled plastic pumpkins in hand, delightedly costumed as Dracula with a mouthful of uncomfortable pointed fangs?

Still another Halloween connection is the association between witches and bats. The three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth include, along with eyes of newts and toes of frogs, “the wool of bats” in their doubly bubbling “hell-broth.” Images of witches almost certainly include a few bats flying in the background. Bats are now part and parcel of Halloween lore and symbology.  

The bottom line, though, is that bats have gotten a bad rap over the centuries. Studies have shown them to be essential to global ecology. A single bat may consume as many as 3,000 insects in a night, considerably more effective than a citronella candle on a summer evening.

Bats are also important pollinators of fruits and plants, including the agave plant, the source of tequila. Connoisseurs of margaritas might think fondly of the bats that helped raise the glass to their lips.

And that bat in the bedroom? One undocumented theory has been floated that bats are repelled by the sound of mariachi music. Even if effective, that would likely be more a deterrent to sleep than to the bat itself. In a very different approach to using music with bats, a scientist—likely a young one—trained bats to approach him when regaled with the sounds of heavy metal music. One wonders why.

Sufficient information, though, to prompt these words to the wise: on a summer evening, go easy on the heavy metal. Keep doors and windows closed.

And then perhaps retrain your mind to think kindly of these fascinating and primarily benevolent lovers of mosquitoes.

Happy Halloween!

bat, information, folklore


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