I get odd looks when I tell people that I think bats are cute.
This first summer that I worked at the Dickinson County Nature Center, we had a family bring in a little brown bat that they had found on their driveway.
They thought the bat was injured because it wasn’t flying away, but bats can’t take off from the ground, so really all it needed was to be put on the bark of a tree where it could crawl up and then swoop down and catch air to begin flight.
The family brought the little brown bat to us in a shoebox, and our naturalist put on a pair of gloves — just a precautionary measure to avoid being bitten because it is a wild animal, not because bats are diseased — and put the bat on one of the oak trees outside.
I snapped some pictures and still think this was just the cutest little bat! I mean, look at its tiny little ears, soft fur and little face it’s trying to keep hidden.
Bats are really misunderstood creatures, like many animals that society thinks are “icky.” Our environmental educators did an Icky Animals-themed Nature Tots in October to show kids that even animals with bad reputations are important to the environment, and this week they have also been teaching first grade classes about the importance of bats.
Bats are incredibly important creatures to our ecosystem. Fruit- and nectar-eating bats, found in more tropical areas of the world, disperse seed and help pollinate plants. Insectivore bats, like those found in Iowa, assist in pest control by eating mosquitoes, moths and beetles. They can even eat 1,000 mosquitoes per hour, so if you’re not a mosquito fan, you should be a bat fan.
But creating bat fans tends to begin with combatting bat myths. So that’s where we’re going to start:
Myth: Bats will suck your blood.
Vampire bats, which lick the blood of cows, chickens and other animals, live in Central and South America. Only three of the 1,200 species of bats are vampire bats, and they don’t live anywhere near us, so there is no reason not to love Iowa bats.
Myth: Bats carry rabies.
Rabies occurs in less than half of 1 percent of bats, and those bats will not survive. Plus, only 11 cases of human rabies transmitted by bats were documented in North America in 30 years, less than many other wild and even domestic animals.
Myth: Bats attack people or will get caught in your hair.
They are afraid of humans, seeing us as predators, and will avoid contact whenever possible. If you have had a bat swoop next to you, it’s most likely using echolocation to find the insects that are flying around you. So really, it’s protecting you from bug bites! It’s more like Superman watching out for you than something to be afraid of.
Myth: Bats are dirty animals.
Bats are actually quite clean, grooming themselves just like cats do.
Myth: Bats are rodents.
Not that being a rodent is a bad thing, but bats are not rodents. They are their own order of mammals called chiroptera.
Bat populations throughout the world are declining, some reaching critical levels and needing legal protective steps. The Federal Endangered Species Act in the United States has come to the assistance of some bats, and all bats in their natural habitats and outbuildings are protected under Iowa law.
Iowa is home to nine species of bats, and most are found in the eastern half of the state.
Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus)
The most widely spread bat in Iowa, the big brown bat grows to 4.5 inches with a 13.5-inch wingspan. It has a wide range from North America all the way to northern South America.
Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus)
Little brown bats are about 3.5 inches in length and have a 9.5-inch wingspan. They are found in most of North America except the southern Great Plains to central Mexico. It is one of Iowa’s most common bats. In the winter, some migrate south while others hibernate in eastern Iowa caves and mines.
Eastern Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus subflavus)
This small bat grows to 3.5 inches with a 9.25-inch wingspan and is yellowish or grayish brown with red forearms. It is found from the eastern U.S. west to Kansas and south to Yucatan, Mexico. It is most likely found statewide but has not been reported in northwest Iowa.
Indiana Bat (Myotis sodalis)
This bat is on the Federal Endangered Species list and is protected at all times and in all places. It is primarily found in Missouri, Indiana and Kentucky, but its range also includes parts of Oklahoma, southeastern Iowa and Wisconsin. This bat grows to 3.5 inches, with a 10-inch wingspan.
Northern Myotis (Myotis septentrionalis)
Also called the northern long-eared bat, this bat is a yellowish or reddish brown above with a pale yellowish base. Its hairs have a dark base with a yellowish brown tip. It grows to 3.25 inches long with a 9.5-inch wingspan. It is found throughout Iowa but rarely in western counties.
Eastern Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis)
The eastern red bat is a summer resident of Iowa and lives everywhere from southern Canada to South America, except in the Rocky Mountains. It is an average of 4.25 inches long with a 12-inch wingspan.
Hoary Bat (Lasiurus cinereus)
This bat’s name comes from its frosty (hoary) appearance. It is found across North America, and females are found in Iowa during the summer, although males rarely come into the state except during migration. It grows to 5.5 inches long with a 15.5-inch wingspan.
Silver-Haired Bat (Lasioncteris noctivagans)
This bat is black on its mid-back with silver-tipped hairs and grows to 4 inches, with an 11-inch wingspan. It has a wide range from Alaska and southern Canada to the southern United States. Females are found throughout Iowa in the summer; males have only been documented in Iowa during migration.
Evening Bat (Nycticeius humeralis)
Another relatively rare resident of Iowa, the evening bat usually lives in the southeastern United States to northeast Mexico. Females are found in the southern two-thirds of Iowa in the summer. It is 4 inches, with a 10.74-inch wingspan.
We can all help bats in Iowa by providing them places to live. All bats are naturally forest-dwelling mammals, however, the state of Iowa has lost 70-78 percent of its forested land since European settlement. This especially puts Indiana and evening bats in jeopardy, because they establish summer nurseries in dead or dying trees. Big and little brown bats have been able to transition to using human structures as roosts in the summer.
Bat conservationists encourage the maintenance of tree coverage along streams and rivers and also suggest minimizing human impacts in caves by excluding visitors during winter months when bats are hibernating.
You can help by putting up bat houses. They are rather simple to construct, and you can find designs and learn more about how to create the perfect bat house in this free bat houses PDF.