Bats in the Belfry by Joan Koerper

It’s true. My first encounter with bats actually was in a belfry: the bell tower of St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church on Livernois Avenue in Detroit, Michigan. Entry to the tower was forbidden to all but a chosen few. I’d begged my father, who was the organist at the church, to be my partner on an adventure and climb the long, winding staircase of the looming, mysterious bell tower. As an avid reader of mystery stories my nine-year-old imagination ran wild with excitement. Would we find the “secret of the bell tower?” Or the “mystery of the hidden staircase?”

One Saturday in October, Dad granted my wish as part of my birthday present that year. After his long morning of playing daily mass, funerals, and weddings he drove ten miles home to West Bloomfield, fetched me, and we headed back to the church for our rendezvous with the unknown.

The tumbler clicked in the wide, heavy, sculpted, solid wooden door as Dad’s key turned in the lock. Our footfalls echoed off the stairs against the cement walls of the narrow, curving passageway. Higher and higher we ascended. My heartbeat quickened until we reached the first open space with floor to ceiling vertical slits in the exterior walls. Then, mounting even narrower, twisting steps, my heart raced as we reached the steeple and confronted the beauty of the bats, the bells, and the view. It was a dream come true, one of the thrills of my young life.

I wasn’t afraid of the bats in the belfry. My father would never put me in danger. As an educator, he educated me. I knew we wouldn’t be “attacked,” and that it was extremely rare for bats to be rabid. Instead, we were visitors in their home.

I’ve had many other encounters with bats since then: while in Detroit, as an Investigative Police Officer (detective) searching old buildings, attics, and cupolas for young missing children, and working crime scene venues. And in caves I’ve explored across the country. While living in Northern Minnesota, I was introduced to the idea of bat houses. My friends the Kargers, along with other residents, specifically built and positioned houses for bats who were especially welcomed for their role in consuming mosquitoes and other flying insects in summer. Now, living in Wrightwood, I’ve observed a number of homes also providing bat shelters.

In western society in particular, bats get a bad rap. Some say it is because bats are nocturnal, creatures of the night, and part of the “dark side” because they go into damp, dark places, make no noise, and are mysterious. Whatever the reasons, misconceptions and superstitions surround bats, especially in western society, fostering fear, and even panic. Simply put, humans too often fear what we don’t know and are all too ready to declare the unknown as “evil.” Wildly exaggerated rumors, such as the common misconception that bats are rabid, abound. Or that they are some sort of flying rodent, or closely related to rodents, when they are actually more closely related to primates than rodents.

Last week, on October 28, I was standing in the Wrightwood Branch of the San Bernardino County Library, admiring the images and figures of bats hanging from the ceiling as part of the Halloween decorations when I found the book, America’s Neighborhood Bats: Understanding and Learning to Live in Harmony with Them by Merlin D. Tuttle (University of Texas Press) on a Friends of the Library sale shelf. I snatched it up. This beautifully produced book with full color photographs, intended to educate the general public about bats, won the Conservation Education Award by the Wildlife Society. The author, Tuttle, is the founder and science director of Bat Conservation International in Austin, Texas.

Once home, I read it in one sitting. Soon I realized I should have been sipping a margarita or tequila sunrise while reading.

Yep, heads up tequila drinkers! Without bats there would be no tequila! Tuttle reveals, “agave plants, from which tequila is produced, are so dependent on bats for pollination that without them, the probability of successful seed production drops to one three-thousandth of normal.”

In light of the astonishing information I learned about bats, I thought it might be fun to briefly recount a few bat facts here:

  • Bat fossils have been found that are approximately 50 million years old, and today’s bats closely resemble those ancient bats.
  • Bats are mammals: the only flying mammals at that. Bats account for one-quarter of all mammal species. Scientists have placed them in their own group, Chiroptera, which means “hand-wing.”
  • There are nearly a thousand species of bats that come in a fascinating array of appearances.
  • The Bumblebee Bat of Thailand, the world’s smallest mammal, weighs less than a penny, whereas the Flying Foxes of the old-world tropics can have six-feet wing spans.
  • Bats are not blind: many have excellent vision.
  • Bats hunt by echolocation, or emitting high-frequency sounds that bounce back to their ears. This enables them to detect minute objects in complete darkness. Their unique echolocation systems “surpass current scientific understanding and on a watt-per-watt, ounce-per-ounce basis has been estimated to be literally billions of times more efficient than any similar system developed by humans.”
  • Most bats living in temperate zones in the US and Canada mate right before entering hibernation in the fall.
  • Like humans, bats give birth to poorly developed offspring and nurse them from pectoral breasts.
  • Bats can live up to forty years producing only one offspring a year, although few survive more than thirty-four years.
  • They are clean, cuddly and sociable.
  • Seventy percent of bats eat insects, though many tropical species feed on fruit or nectar exclusively. A few are carnivorous, eating small vertebrates: fish, frogs, mice and birds. Of the nearly 1,000 species of bats, only three species are vampire bats and they live only in Latin America.
  • Insect eating bats are essential to keeping night-flying insects in check including beetles, moths and mosquitoes. For example, “the 20 million free-tailed bats from Bracken Cave in Central Texas eat more than 200 tons of insects in a single midsummer night.”
  • Pollination and seed dispersal activities of nectar and fruit eating bats are a key to the survival of the rain forests and entire ecosystems. “Bats may drop up to 95% of the seeds that produce the first ‘pioneer’ plants in a clearing.”
  • In the Pacific Islands and Asia, where the species of bats called Flying Foxes live out in the open in the tree tops, and have wingspans of three to six-feet, they are not feared. Instead they are depicted as heroes in some legends. In China they are held in high esteem as omens of good luck and happiness. And there is much more.

Exploring the secret of the bell tower provided me with my first face-to-face encounter with an even greater mystery….the stunning beauty and intelligence of bats. Through curiosity, fortuitous circumstances, and now a breathtaking book, I have been guided to new learnings. My respect for the vital role these incredibly diverse, beautiful, and gentle animals have in our ecosystem, as well as so many other facets of their physicality and nature, has multiplied and deepened.

It is no coincidence, really, that for most of us bats come to mind at this time of year. The trilogy of All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween), All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day have their origins in the ancient Irish and Druid traditional seasonal quarters. October 31 concludes the quarter season of Lughnasadh, Autumn, which is the time of harvest, maturity, physical, and spiritual garnering. Samhain, Winter quarter, runs from November 1 to January 31 and, with the cold weather closing in, it brings the gifts of restoration and renewal. It is a time to celebrate wise elders, and all those whose actions and sacrifices have brought new life.

Considering that bats have been around for fifty million years, live similar life spans as our human ancestors, and that we are all made from the same stardust, it is time for me, and hopefully other humans, to honor and celebrate bats as wise elders whose actions and sacrifices continually bring new life to our earth.

Darkness converges on the final night of this year’s sacred trilogy: All Souls’ Day. The light of the ascending moon glistens on ice covering the watering holes in my front yard where birds bathed and languished just a few days ago. I light the wood stove, a stick of sandalwood incense, and raise my tequila sunrise, or in this case tequila sunset, with a nod, and smile in deep gratitude and admiration: praise to the bats of the past, present, and future. May you continue to thrive, nurturing Mother Earth and her propitious inhabitants.

Notes: All quotes in this piece are directly from Tuttle’s book. Tuttle’s book also has chapters addressing: resolving misconceptions, dealing with unexpected visitors, evicting unwelcome tenants, living in harmony, and getting to know your neighbors. It contains A Beginner’s Key to American Bats as well as Suggested Reading.

I found Tuttle’s book, and the following article in Popular Science, highly readable and transforming.

America’s Neighborhood Bats: Understanding and Learning to Live in Harmony with Them Revised edition by Merlin D. Tuttle. University of Texas Press. 1998. ISBN: 0-292-78148-2

“This Halloween, Celebrate The Beautiful Bat” Popular Science. Source: