Bats' usefulness touted at bird festival workshop

May 15 2011 - 10:14pm

FARMINGTON -- There is a very important creature keeping many of the pesky insects at bay in Utah, though it doesn't get much credit for its efforts.

Millions of bats live in Northern Utah, and historically, bats have had a bad reputation.

In reality, bats are naturally shy and reclusive, and they help out by eating anywhere from 30 to 100 percent of their body weight in insects during the night, said Phil Gray, wildlife technician for the Northern Region of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

"There is a lot of mythology in bats and vampires, so with creatures that are so secretive and reclusive, it sparks natural curiosity, and people are either fascinated or terrified of the creatures," Gray said.

As part of this year's Great Salt Lake Bird Festival, a bat workshop was held, not so coincidentally, on Friday the 13th at the Davis County Legacy Events Center.

Organizers of the event decided to have fun with the day by providing the workshop and a field trip to Jensen Park in Syracuse to see some local bat hangouts, which consist of a few small bat houses for migrating bats to visit throughout the summer.

The insect-eating bats found in Top of Utah usually stay hidden during daylight hours and come out for their dining sessions after dark, eating millions of insects each evening. Given the colder weather lately, bats have yet to really come out, Gray said.

"Hibernating bats are still hibernating, and the migrating ones are still confused, which is the reason we don't expect to see many bats right now," he said.

Bats are found just about anywhere -- that is, anywhere there is prey, such as mosquitos and gnats, which means most areas around here, Gray said. Several years ago, the Division of Wildlife Resources found a colony of about 1,500 bats in the Freeport Center in Clearfield.

It's possible that some people have seen a bat or two but didn't know exactly what they were looking at.

At dusk, the bats start swooping in on mosquitoes and gnats, often in plain sight. Another way to observe bats is by shining a flashlight across community ponds, where it is sometimes possible to see hundreds of bats skimming across the water, scooping up drinks with their open mouths while still flying.

Mitchel Babcock, 7, of Syracuse, encountered a bat once -- one that unintentionally found its way into his aunt's shower in the family cabin at Yellowstone.

"It was scary, because my aunt was yelling, but it flew out on its own," said Mitchel. He was particularly excited when he heard that bats eat mosquitoes.

"I like bats, because they eat mosquitoes. And since I'm allergic to mosquitoes, that's cool," he said.

Sometimes bats will enter a residence or office building looking for a cool, safe place to call home, at which point Gray gets the call to take care of the problem. He remembers receiving a call from a concerned homeowner who kept finding mangled bats in the yard each morning. When Gray went out to investigate, he found a cluster of dead bats on the roof. Gray determined the neighbor's cat was killing the bats when they flew out from the attic each night.

Getting bats out of residential buildings isn't difficult with a few tricks Gray has up his sleeve, such as putting work lights in the attic to drive the bats out, patching up the holes after the bats have flown out and even placing mothballs in the area, which will sometimes drive them out.

All bat species are protected by Utah law, and it is illegal to intentionally kill a bat.

There is a common misperception that many bats drink blood, Gray said during the workshop. Though a few species of bats do drink blood as their main diet, they are found mostly in South America, he said.

Lia Smith, a 10-year-old from West Bountiful, said learning about the vampire bats of South America was the best part of the workshop.

"The most interesting thing I learned was that vampire bats don't suck blood, they lap it up like dogs," Lia said.

Gray hopes that in the process of educating people about bats, they will learn how to live more comfortably with wildlife and understand that bats are, for the most part, harmless animals.

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