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Bat Care

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The bat my mother-in-law found in her living room is a big brown bat, Eptesicus fuscus, as evidenced by her long, foxy muzzle. Little brown bats look kind of smoosh-faced but not in a cute, Boston-terrier like way; more in an otherworldly way. Their faces and muzzles are furry, not naked like the big brown's. Here's a photo of a little brown bat from I could definitely love a little brown bat, but it isn't as sweet and familiar looking as the big brown bat.

Little brown bat, Myotis lucifugus. Photo from

Big brown bats are irreproachably cute micro foxes. And they're only big in comparison to pipistrelles and little brown bats. They're about 4 to 5 inches long, with a 11-13 inch wingspan. They weigh only 1/2 to 5/8 ounce. They don't have hollow bones or air sacs like birds; their flight is the feat of an acrobat who must flap continuously to stay aloft.

The vast majority of bats found in homes are big brown bats. They seem to be better (or worse, depending on how thrilled you are at finding one in your kitchen) at getting into the occupied parts of houses.

Care of overwintering bats is not difficult, because they sleep all day and almost around the clock. I can change the papers, food and water in her tank without ever disturbing her as she hangs on the sidewall, hidden in her toweling. She eats live mealworms, which are fed my new favorite nutritious substance, chick starter, with carrots for moisture. This is called "gut loading." The idea is, if you feed the worms good stuff, the bat or whatever eats them gets good stuff, too. I can attest that mealworms grow like Topsy when kept in chick starter. It would seem to me to be a good idea for anyone feeding mealworms to wild birds to keep them in chick starter rather than plain old fashioned oats. But then I'm all about taking care of wild things, and I'm thinking a lot more about nutrition these days, having had some evidence that we can hurt the things we love most with the wrong foods.

When the towels get soiled, every four days or so, I gently fold her into her dirty washcloth and place her in a lidded Tupperware. Then I thoroughly clean the tank and gently transfer her to freshly-laundered towels on the tank wall. That's my favorite part, because I get to talk to her and transfer her from one towel to another. At first I had to unhook her feet from the dirty towel, but now she scuttles up onto the clean towel as soon as I open my hand. Bats learn fast.

Routine care doesn't make her mad any more. I get just a little whiff of musk from her facial glands, a pleasantly skunky waft, a desultory chitter. And her fur is smooth and shiny, not all rumbly like it was when I first got her. She's been preening. I can see the towels shake as she rearranges her fur. Sometimes I see her licking her hooks and feet and armbones like a cat. She can scratch her head and neck with her hind feet. Having always thought of bats as kind of bound up in their own wing and tail membranes, I'm pleased and surprised to see how flexible and mobile they are.

I risk a stroke toward her back end as I hold her head and wings securely in the glove. It's amazing. Her fur is so soft you can't even feel it. She doesn't so much as turn her head, but she kind of shrinks in when I touch her. Her whole being vibrates, and I imagine she is talking, saying something about my temerity for daring such a thing.

She hangs there all day, sleeping and preening and scratching, folded into her towels. She much prefers dark colored cloths. She's become so tame that it's hard to get her to chitter and cuss at me now. I wish I had taken photos of her teeth when she was just captured--they are impressive! Edges like a pinking shears, oversized for her tiny mouth, and strong--she would bite the tweezers and nearly twist them from my fingers, clang!! No wonder I was a little eepy about her.

Here's the not-so-easy part of keeping a bat over the winter. It needs to be released when the weather warms reliably in spring, when the nights stay in the 50's. And several weeks before that, it needs to have a heated place where it can exercise and get its muscles conditioned for flight. And there's the rub. I have a tent made of nylon screening that would be a fabulous flight space, except for the fact that any big brown bat worth its salt would be outta there in two minutes. They're escape artists par excellence. At the Ohio Wildlife Center, they have to roll up towels under the flight room door, for goodness' sake, because the bats will go out that tiny space. Smart, smart, smart. And tiny, tiny, tiny, and endlessly flattenable, like flying Flat Stanleys, bats are. So I'll have to head to Columbus for flight conditioning several weeks before release time. And pray that Dee Dee doesn't have her bab(ies) before she's released near her maternity roost.

All right. I've made some of this bat care thing sound easy. But I have to tell you that you MUST have a permit from your state to keep any wild animal, and for a rabies vector species like a bat, you must also have a RVS certification on that permit. This is for your own protection as well as the bat's. They're not pets. They do a good job of looking like them on my blog. But I don't cuddle them and I handle them as little as possible. They're wild animals and they're destined for release.

The day my permit came in the mail with the rabies vector certification on it, I decided that I wouldn't trade it for a diamond ring. What can you learn from a diamond ring?


"What can you learn from a diamond ring?"


Look at that face! Thank you for giving us a close view of a creature I only get to watch overhead on a summer evening here in the Black Hills.

These posts about bat nurturing are why we--your loyal readers--love you to pieces. Your almost breathless adoration at the miracle of one of the creatures on this earth, mingled with your scholarly cautions about not doing this "at home" (you know, like the tv commercials) are so much fun to read. And instructive at that.

Yes, these furry creatures are lovable! Don't you just love the sound they make when they're chewing up the juicy little mealworms? When I did rehabbing at the Ohio Wildlife Center, bats were my faves. Getting them in shape for release is a lot of time-consuming fun, but (oh well) some people have to go to work and can't spend all day exercizing bats. Thank you for your passing on of the new-found benefits of chick starter. I'll add it to my worm medium, which have been living in wheat bran and germ with carrots, apples and romaine. I know in some places people eat meal worms. So far, I just can't do it. Not even suate'ed in butter, nor garnished with fresh parsely. Not gonna do it. Enjoy you little visitor!

"has her babies"?
I'm hoping there will be a forthcoming post explaining more about this....

Posted by myamuhnative March 14, 2010 at 4:04 PM

"What can you learn from a diamond ring?" I agree with cyberthrush! amen to that sister! hehe

And yes, more about these babies that you speak of!


Posted by Anonymous March 14, 2010 at 6:59 PM

What a neat story. I think bats are amazing creatures and it's nice to learn more first-hand information about them. Thank Julie!

Little brown bat's smushed-in face has the "Oops, I forgot to put in the dentures this morning" look.

your bat posts are reminding me of a summer in Maine when the softest flutter of a feather like touch repeatedly stroked my cheek as I was falling into my dreamtime...after a few passes I realized that I was not alone in the loft room overlooking the bay...
pahh to a diamond ring I say...pahh.

Oh. Just smiling.


My Dad used to tell me I was like a bat...hung around all day, and partied all night! Hah. What a great time you must be having!

We had a few bat visitors when we first moved in to our house. They are charming creatures in their own way, although we always seemed to meet them at 4 am, flying around in our bedroom and causing the dog to bark like crazy. My very brave husband would stand very still holding up a big towel until they would land and he could escort them out. We have since fixed their entrances to our attic, but I do have a fondness for them.

Actually, you didn't make it sound all that easy. And will you be able to witness the birth? Anything special we should be anticipating? Do they come out clinging?

I loved reading these posts! Thank you for the sensitivity and care you show towards the Batgirl and other animals. You are a good teacher.

A friend of mine was a wildlife rescuer and I once got to pet a bat she was rescuing who had accidentally gotten gassed when a building was being fumigated. It was a Mexican free-tail bat. It turned out to be tiny and vulnerable, not scary at all. It was very soft.

Since it needed so much care, she snuck it into the office and cared for it at work. Through the grace of God, our boss never noticed!

Posted by Anonymous March 16, 2010 at 6:48 AM

This post made me smile and the comments made me laugh. It's like you've created a community of folks not afraid to show their love of bats, spiders, etc. I'm sure working like you do with other naturalists and scientists, showing your love of bats is no big deal. But here in the office world, believe me, it is.

I can guarantee you that if I asked 100 staff members about bats here at my office, 98 would say RABIES, Disgusting creatures, or have some horror story about something that happened to a friend's friend, etc.

Your blog is such an oasis for us nature loving souls who are currently needing to work in a soul-sucking office job.

Thank you...

Fascinating informative article! Last year I took some photo of a Little Brown Bat flying in plain daylight over a pond in May, back and forth, hunting insects. The face certainly wasn't cute. After that we hung a bat house, stained brown for warmth, on a tree but it never found any takers.

Read the interview with you in Birding. I hadn't known you did all those things!!

Julie, I love that you have the science to go along with the magic. Friends of mine watched a mother bat's rescue of her baby - from the shoebox they'd placed it in after finding it in their house. "Someone has to make a picture book of this!" they told me. I gave it a shot (The Bat in the Boot, Orchard Books). When your mama bat has her bab(ies), SOMEone has to make it into picture book too, and I and all of your readers are pointing to Whipple!

Bravissima, Annie Cannon! Everybody go see The Bat in the Boot!

What an experience, julie. You're going to miss that amazing bat girl when she's gone. I love that she's learned to tolerate you in her own way. Her trust speaks volumes about the simple autonomy of a single animal.

Oh, what a joy it is to learn more about bats from you, dear one. Of course, it makes me looong for my Bobby to return on one of these warm nights. Last year he came back on March 26th. If I am both blessed and lucky this year, it will be his would be his 12 year in our window!

Miss you, but grateful for your writing which keeps us all enfolded in your stretchy wings. Sackville- West wrote:" It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment?" Baby, it's you, sha-la-la.XOM.

Posted by Anonymous March 18, 2010 at 6:10 PM

How would you get the permit and certidfications you talked about. i ouwld love the right to study and learn a bat, I dont have any problem releasing them I am so excited I found your website. you are rather knowledageable about bats. Its a hobby reading about them. My emial is If you could get to me whenever I would love that so much!

Posted by Anonymous September 1, 2010 at 9:46 PM

I also was wondering how you get the rabies vector certification and other permits you discussed. Any advice or info would be much appreciated! Thanks!

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