It started with a moment of curiosity while in Costa Rica…
There are more bats than birds in Costa Rica? In the rainforest? In a country where there are more types of birds than all of North AND South America combined?!? It’s true. In terms of number of animals (not number of species) there are more bats than birds in Costa Rica. And oh are these bats important. Their behavior repopulates destroyed forests more than any other species. They spread seeds farther and across more threatening territory (think the wide open air above rivers and canyons) than any species of bird. There are 30+ species that rely on bats for pollination including mangoes, cacao, figs, bananas, cashews, and the Southwest essentials: agave plants, Saguaro and organ pipe cactus. (Source) Upon hearing these facts from the Monteverde Institute in Costa Rica I knew I needed to learn more about this underappreciated species.
So I went to the Bat Jungle to learn more. I got a personal tour that included watching bats happily feeding and flying around since they believed it was nighttime. (They have an indoor “cave” where the researchers control when it is night or day.) I learned that there are approximately 1,100 bat species on Earth, 110 of them are found in Costa Rica. Some of them are cute, others plain weird looking, and one even looks remarkably like a unicorn. See for yourself. I was shocked to learn that almost 25% of all known mammals are bats. Ok now what about bats back home, what role do bats play in the US?
Bats are the most effective, chemical-free mosquito protection you can find. They have been tracked eating 600 mosquitos an hour and they also help farmers and gardens ward off other pesky pests. Their guano (aka poop) makes amazing fertilizer. Unfortunately, much of their habitat has been invaded or destroyed because of mining, the popularity of caving, and urban growth. Because bats sleep during the day they need safe places to curl up, and without proper winter hibernation locations bats can starve or freeze to death. It was this combination of facts (and reassuring myself that bats are safe, friendly, and largely uninterested or scared of humans) that convinced me: I wanted to be a bat-vocate.
What does being a bat-vocate mean? Well for starters I was going to build a bat house (or two) and spread the word on how valuable it is to offer habitat to these creatures. While doing some local research, I also discovered Robert Schorr, a bat conservationist and researcher and his Climbers for Bats project. He invites climbers (and all adventurers) to contribute valuable knowledge about bats’ habitats by sharing photos of bats they encounter in nature via the website
While not as common as bird houses, bat houses are arguably more important and more enjoyable (think seriously diminished mosquito populations). As it turns out, they also make a fun building project to practice your woodworking skills – which to be clear, mine were minimal when I started. As in, never-used-a-table-saw-before minimal. Don’t let that stop you.
I went with the four chamber bat house from Bat Conservation International. They seem to be the go-to experts in most things batty. I also ended up reading a handful of other blogs along the way, especially when it comes to placing your bat house. You do need a handful of materials that can become expensive. However I found most of the materials through repurposed sources. I got a lot of the wood and shingles from EcoCycle, an upcycling place for construction materials. I found wood stain (and paint I ended up not using) for free from my local Hazardous Waste Drop Off site. And if you (or a friend) have a bit of experience building stuff, you probably already have all of the tools and hardware you need.
Building this bat house has been an important process for me. First, I have learned so much about bats, woodworking, and the world I live in since beginning this process. There is something about building a house (typically a human concept) for bats (an unfamiliar, wild creature) that has helped me blend how my world extends and blends into nature. Second, it’s been empowering. Even after 4 years at a top civil engineering school this is the most advanced thing I have ever built. It made installing new thermostats feel simple. It has me eyeing different tables and bookshelves imagining how they were built. It means I am already sketching plans for my next project.
- Find repurposed materials (see above).
- Don’t use netting, rather find rough sided panels or cut lines in your inner panels for your bats to hang from.
- Don’t paint your house unless you live in a very cold environment. It may keep bats from using the house. I ended up putting wood stain on all outer surfaces and shingles on the roof.
- Take your time and don’t forget to put the holes in the panels so the bats can visit each other.
- Make sure people can tell what lives inside by adding some cool bat designs.
Other cool facts about bats:
- They are more similar to primates than birds, and their closest relative is believed to be the flying lemur.
- Bats use echolocation, have been shown to navigate even when blindfolded, and have built in ‘hardware’ that is billions of times more effective than any systems humans have built.
- They can account for up to 90% of forest regrowth after destruction.
- The bumblebee bat of Thailand weighs less than a penny.
- Some species live for over 30 years.
There are so many reasons to become a bat-vocate (or, if bats really aren’t your thing, pick a different species. Host a Save the Waves documentary night. Share fun facts about octopi with people. Build a bird feeder. There are so many amazing animals we co-exist with, and the more aware we are of their ways of being the more we will respect them.
I would love to hear your feelings on bat-vocacy, questions you have about how to get started, and submissions for bat-vocacy t-shirt designs.