Unreasonable and unseasonable, fear of bats is a Halloween myth

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COLUMBUS – It’s Halloween in Ohio – when a chill in the air matches is matched by the chill that’s running down your spine.

This is also the season when we’re tricked into fearing one of the Mother Nature’s most gentle offspring: the bat.

Not only is our Halloween fear of bats unfair, it’s untimely. With temperatures dipping lower each day, most Ohio bats won’t be out and about come trick-or-treat time. They’ll have already pulled up stakes and headed into hibernation.

This isn’t because bats are spooked by their own scary reputation, it’s a matter of food supply.

Sleeping through winter. Bats in the Buckeye State consume vast amounts of insects for nourishment – a food source most abundant during the warm months. With ample fat reserves, bats can successfully sleep the winter away to survive the cold and scarcity of food.

Known as a hibernaculum, a bat’s winter roosting site may include a cave, abandoned mine or rock crevice. In some cases, these creatures of the night will choose large buildings or attics for their winter rest. During that time, their body temperature lowers, their breathing slows to once or twice a minute, and their heart rate drops dramatically.

Buckeye bats. Of the estimated 1,000 bat species worldwide, 11 species have been known to hang out in Ohio: the Big Brown Bat, Little Brown Bat, Eastern Pipistrelle, Red Bat, Indiana Bat, and Northern Long-eared Bat are the most recorded. Less common here are the Silver-haired, Evening and Hoary bats.

Even more rare, perhaps wandering into Ohio by accident, are Rafinesque’s Big-eared Bat and the Eastern Small-footed Bat.

If you’ve ever had bats in your house, Big Brown Bats were the likely visitors. They like to hang out in buildings, and will occasionally hibernate in attics or barns – although a cozy cave is more to their liking.

In summer, they are drawn to the buffet of swarming insects beneath city streetlights.

Flashing a wingspan of up to 13 inches, the Big Brown is Ohio’s most common bat, and the most visible to urban dwellers.

Some like the cold. While it’s believed most of the forest-dwelling Red Bats leave for southern states, some don’t seem to mind riding out winter in Ohio. Capitalizing on a thick coat of red fur, they only hibernate during really cold periods of weather. At those times, they utilize tree hollows or burrow amid leaf litter on the ground.

Slightly smaller than Big Browns, it is not unusual for Red Bats to be out flying on a warm January afternoon.

Helpful creatures. Unfortunately, many people think of bats as dirty or ghoulish when they are actually one of nature’s most valuable and fascinating creatures.

“Bats play an important ecological role,” said Dave Swanson, a state wildlife biologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. “They are the only major predators of night-flying insects, which, in addition to mosquitoes, includes many forest and agricultural pests.”

For instance, a colony of 150 Big Brown Bats can aid a farmer by eating 18 million or more rootworm pests each summer. A single Little Brown Bat can catch up to 600 mosquitoes in an hour.

Another bat plus: nectar-eating bats (like bees) gather pollen as they travel from flower to flower, helping ensure the continuance of plant life.

And, did you know that bats are the only mammals that can really fly? With flight speeds that vary between six and 18 miles per hour, they average about 10 to 20 wing-beats per second.

Little, but mighty. Needing a stable climate with temperatures above freezing, the Little Brown Bat flies south to slumber away the winter in the caves of Kentucky.

Weighing barely half an ounce, this small bat will hang alone or in groups of up to several hundred. Ohio’s smallest bat is the Eastern Pipistrelle. Weighing a quarter ounce or less, and measuring little more than three inches in length, this diminutive bat has a wingspan of 8 to 10 inches.

“Pips” hibernate in Ohio and are known to return to the same winter roost each year.

Common myths. * Contrary to popular myth, bats are not attracted to your hair. Aided by radar-like sensory perception, they fly with pinpoint precision. So, unless you’re sporting a head full of cucumber beetles, you’re safe.

* Bats do not suck blood. Out of 1,000 bat species only three are typed as “vampire bats,” of which none are in Ohio or the continental United States.

* Never pick up an injured bat. Wildlife experts remind us that bats have teeth and they will use them.

* Let sleeping bats hang. Hibernation places bats in a very vulnerable condition and if disturbed they could die.

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