Are There Bats in Your Belfry? 1 Apr 2017

Vampires are all the rage in some horror movies. Are there really vampires? Yes, there are – but they’re bats, not demented humans.

Bats flap around at night in apparently erratic, unpredictable patterns. Thus came the phrases applied to wacky people: “They act like they have bats in their belfry,” and “That guy’s just plain batty.” Actually, bats’ erratic flight is caused by them chasing insect dinners. They aren’t nuts, just aerial acrobats.

Bats are warm-blooded mammals. You could call them mice with wings. Texas is host to at least 38 different kinds of bats. Some eat pollen, fruit, insects, frogs, scorpions, centipedes, and even blood.

Blood? Yep, some bats eat blood. Vampire bats live in central and south America and southern Texas. They dine on blood lapped up from bite wounds they inflict on cattle. But, some also bite sleeping people, not even awakening them. Normally, vampire bats leave people alone, but in south America large scale deforestation has severely reduced bat habitat, and human attacks are increasing.

All bats can carry rabies. Peru, Brazil, and Venezuela have all seen recent outbreaks of human rabies spread by rabid vampire bat bites. In one remote Amazon region, approximately 1100 people were bitten by rabid bats in 2005. More recently, 500 people in Peru suffered rabid vampire bat bites.

Rabies is normally transmitted only by bites, but exposure can also come from saliva, body fluids, or nerve tissue getting into open wounds or the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose or mouth when someone handles a sick or dead bat.

Rabid bats are generally not aggressive. They simply become very sick, lethargic, and often paralyzed, falling to the ground and dying. Although most bats are not rabid, any bat bite should be washed thoroughly with soap and water and reported to a physician. Never handle a bat, whether it appears sick or not. Dead or ill bats should be reported to your local health department or animal control.

If you awaken with a bat in your room, or a bat is found in the room of a bed-bound person, see a doctor. Because bats normally encountered in Texas have very tiny teeth, a bite may not even be noticed. Bats that appear ill should be captured by health professionals and tested for rabies. Human symptoms of rabies can occur as long as one to three months or longer after exposure. Once symptoms develop, death is almost always certain, despite treatment.

Immediate medical treatment is vitally important for a person suspected to have been bitten by a bat. Injectable vaccines, called PEP (Post Exposure Prophylaxis), can prevent the disease in those bitten by an infected animal. But the procedure must be instituted immediately. There are also human preventative rabies injections available for those such as veterinarians who may frequently have contact with rabid animals.

Amazingly, in the 1950s there were two fatal cases in Texas of humans contracting rabies, not by a bite but from airborne virus. The victims were exploring bat-infested caves near Uvalde, Texas and apparently inhaled the virus.

Under normal conditions, bats are beneficial animals. They are voracious insect eaters, and a single little brown bat can catch 600 mosquitoes in an hour. It has been estimated that the 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats from Bracken Cave in Texas eat 250 tons of insects each night!

Hardy and adaptable, bats such as the Mexican free-tailed sometimes fly up to two miles high to feed or catch tail winds that carry them over great distances at speeds up to 60 miles per hour. Some are also long lived. Little brown bats sometimes live more than 32 years!

Some folks put up bat boxes to encourage them to stick around and munch a bunch of bugs. I don’t encourage that. But if you do it, I’d recommend that the boxes not be too near the house. If you’re interested in learning more about bats, check Bat Conservation International on the Web.

Take some time to watch the twilight evening sky and enjoy these little winged mammals. Some bats hibernate in winter, sometimes in your attic, but others just migrate south where it’s warmer. In any case, they are Texas’ own Mousketeers or Mice in Black, dedicating their lives to insect control!

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.