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Mysterious, good, bad? Bats unveiled

A baby long-eared myotis bat, stranded on a deck on Orcas Island, eyes a droplet of water. - Journal photo / Cali Bagby
A baby long-eared myotis bat, stranded on a deck on Orcas Island, eyes a droplet of water.
— image credit: Journal photo / Cali Bagby

There are few things as delicate as a bat’s ear. Thin, dark brown skin is stretched over fragile cartilage. In certain light, they are nearly translucent. The inside ridges look like a washboard for a doll’s house.

I know this because I nursed an injured baby bat back to health. I got a close look at the dainty, cavernous ears, miniature teeth and fuzzy body of our local long-eared myotis bat.

It had been a week of nocturnal activity. Two bats had perished in our overhead fan above the bed. I’ll spare you the details on that. The next night, I was startled by a fluffy ball careening across my bathroom floor. The bat’s movements were jerky; he pivoted on clawed feet, spreading his wings wide across the tiles.

I wrapped him in a towel and put him outside, hoping he’d fly off into the night. But the next morning, he was still there, nestled between the deck and the house siding.

After consulting the internet, Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center and Islands’ Sounder resident “wildlife expert” Cali Bagby, I filled a dropper with water and tried to rehydrate him. He eagerly opened his tiny mouth, gulping down drop after drop. The rows of tiny teeth and his miniscule pink tongue were incredible.

After transporting him to the branches of a nearby tree, at the recommendation of Wolf Hollow, we hoped for the best. Incredibly, he was gone the next day. I like to think he is patrolling the night sky near our house.

The experience brought up a lot of questions – and concerns. Facebook comments ranged from “Install a bat house” to “Does a vampire live with you?” to “Contact the health department immediately; rabies are a concern.”

After talking with the county health department, it turns out I probably shouldn’t have been handling the bat, but the risk of rabies is low.

“If you find a bat that is not doing well and is around people, it could have rabies,” said County Environmental Health Specialist Gary Covington. “In the summer, we get maybe an average of one possible victim per month. It is generally from presumed exposure after finding a bat in sleeping quarters. But we’ve never had any people in San Juan County turn up with a positive rabies infection.”

Low risk of rabies

Rabies is a fatal viral disease that affects the nervous system. Any wild mammal, like a raccoon, skunk, fox, coyote, or bat can have the disease and transmit it to people through a bite.

The primary animals that carry rabies in the northwest are bats. Between five and 10 percent of bats submitted for testing are found to be rabid. Bats tested for rabies are more likely to test positive because they tend to be sick and injured. Less than 1 percent of all bats in the wild are infected with rabies.

Rabid bats have been found in almost every county in Washington, and in 2012, a total of nine rabid bats were identified in the state.

According to the Washington Department of Health, there have been two cases of human rabies in the state during the last 20 years.

There has never been a confirmed case in a human in San Juan County.

Bats’ teeth are tiny and leave marks that are not easily seen. So if you awaken and find a bat in your room, seek medical advice immediately. Treatment, which is a series of shots, has to be initiated within 10 days. The health department can be reached at 378-4474.

Russel Barsh of Kwiáht, a nonprofit scientific organization on Lopez, says bats are very unlikely to bite unless they are handled roughly or they are already injured.

“They don’t bite for fun,” he said. “And they have very sharp teeth and strong jaws, like mice or rats. Imagine someone arguing that you can get bitten by a rat and not know it.”

If you see a bat in your home, confine it to a room by closing all doors and windows except those to the outside. The bat will most likely leave.

If it doesn’t, put leather gloves on, approach the bat cautiously, and when it lands, place a box or coffee can over it. Slide a piece of cardboard under the container to trap the animal inside. Tape the cardboard to the container securely.

The health department also advises to not pick up or touch dead animals, as the virus could be in their saliva or nerve tissue.

If you are bitten, wash the area vigorously with soap and water and get medical advice immediately.

Wolf Hollow nurses bats at its facility on San Juan. Staff can be reached at 378-5000.

Local bats

At least five species of tiny mouse-eared bats make the islands their home.

Mouse-eared bats look similar from a distance and use the same frequencies to navigate and target their prey, but they vary somewhat in body proportions and behavior. Two of our mouse-eared species are actually quite rare.

We also have several larger bats: Townsend’s big-eared, silver-haired, hoary, and big brown.

Bat species divide the night, hunting at different times and focusing on different kinds of insects. Big browns are fond of beetles, for example, while Townsends love moths. Bats eavesdrop on insects’ own high frequency broadcasts to locate, identify and track them.

Barsh says the bat who made his way into my home was likely a baby: clumsy and just learning to get around and much more likely to get inside a house.

Bat houses

Very little is known about the abundance of bats in the San Juan Islands. For this reason, Kwiáht has been researching and advocating for the species. It works closely with Wolf Hollow, following up on reports of bats inside homes.

“We have no funding for this, but it needs to be done,” Barsh said. “We can barely keep up with the number of requests we receive on Lopez, Orcas and San Juan for visiting homes to talk about bats inside walls, living in attics, roosting under eaves, or getting lost and stuck inside rooms.”

Kwiáht conducted a systematic survey (using an ultrasound recorder) of bats around Lopez over the past year and identified 10 species, including six mouse-eared bats and four large bats. Kwiáht is currently surveying bat species on Orcas.

“We’ve recorded for 16 summer nights so far and plan a total of 22 nights, at 16 lakes, ponds, wetlands, and suspected maternity colonies,” Barsh said.

Kwiáht  has also helped Moran State Park design and construct a demonstration “bat tower” for relocating a large maternity colony of rare long-eared myotis bats from the park manager’s office.

Bat boxes are great for home use too. Kwiáht staff has designed bat boxes that are larger, heavier, and warmer than anything you can find for sale online.

Kwiáht has installed bat houses on Lopez, Orcas and San Juan Island. For info on local bats, blueprints to build your own bat house, or to get on the waiting list for a Kwiáht-built house, email kwiaht@gmail.com. Home assessments are free, and if a bat box is called for, Kwiáht shares up to 100 percent of the costs of construction and installation.

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