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Disliking bats is batty: P.E.I. presentation shows softer side of winged mammals

A hoary bat is preserved forever in flight while Dina Blot, chairwoman of the board of the South Shore Watershed Association, left, and chiropterologist Tessa McBurney chat in in Victoria March 6.  Alison Jenkins/Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
A hoary bat is preserved forever in flight while Dina Blot, chairwoman of the board of the South Shore Watershed Association, left, and chiropterologist Tessa McBurney chat in in Victoria March 6. - Alison Jenkins

"Bats fly with their hands."

Chiropterologist Tessa McBurney shared this and other interesting facts during a recent educational campaign to fight the “undeserved bad reputation” that plagues the winged mammals.

Around 20 people were in the old schoolhouse on Victoria Road for the recent presentation, hosted by the South Shore Watershed Association.

McBurney, a technician with the Atlantic Bat Conservation Project, works with the Canadian Wildlife Health Co-operative on a “one health” model.

“If you want a healthy environment and healthy people, then you need healthy animals as well," she said. "So that would include both domestic animals, farm animals, but also your wildlife.”

This includes bats, which are still found across the Island, but in smaller numbers than in the past.

BATS AT HOME

Chiropterologist Tessa McBurney holds the silhouette of the smallest bat in the world, Kitti’s hog-nosed bat, at a talk March 6.  - Alison Jenkins/
Chiropterologist Tessa McBurney holds the silhouette of the smallest bat in the world, Kitti’s hog-nosed bat, at a talk March 6. - Alison Jenkins/

 

P.E.I. is home to at least three, and possibly five, species of bats.

The little brown bat, the hoary bat and the Northern brown bat are here; additionally, the silver-haired bat or big brown bat, or possibly both could be on the Island as well.

Researchers track bat voices to monitor their activity. Bats communicate with sounds too high-pitched for humans to hear, but the sounds can be recorded on a special device that captures the animals’ "voices".

Bats move around in the dark using sophisticated echo-location.

They send out a call that bounces back from objects in the environment. The “echo” lets bats “see” with their ears.

Scientists use software to slow down and reduce the frequency of the recording to make a sonogram - a picture of the bat’s calls.

“Different species of bats will have different patterns on the sonogram, much like birdsong,” said McBurney. “We can get a lot of information from this.”

But the silver-haired bat and the big brown bat sound so much alike, researchers can’t tell them apart.

HELPING THE HEROES

Ron Prentice holds up the silhouette of the giant golden-crowned flying fox in Victoria March 6. The flying fox is the largest bat in the world by weight and has a five-foot wingspan. Prentice said he didn't know anything about bats before coming to the talk, he and his wife have kept a seasonal home in South Melville for over 40 years. - Alison Jenkins
Ron Prentice holds up the silhouette of the giant golden-crowned flying fox in Victoria March 6. The flying fox is the largest bat in the world by weight and has a five-foot wingspan. Prentice said he didn't know anything about bats before coming to the talk, he and his wife have kept a seasonal home in South Melville for over 40 years. - Alison Jenkins

 

All the bat species in Canada are insect eaters, making them superheroes to some people, said McBurney.

Chiropterologist Tessa McBurney shows the audience a recorder that captures the calls of bats. The animals use echo-location to navigate in the dark and, though the sound is too high-pitched for humans to hear, this device will pick it up. - Alison Jenkins
Chiropterologist Tessa McBurney shows the audience a recorder that captures the calls of bats. The animals use echo-location to navigate in the dark and, though the sound is too high-pitched for humans to hear, this device will pick it up. - Alison Jenkins

Canadian bats eat mosquitos as well as insects that attack agricultural crops.

“These bats save billions of dollars a year in the natural ecosystem services of eliminating these pests,” said McBurney.

Bats’ appetite for insects was what drew Elizabeth MacKenzie to the talk.

“I want bats to come eat my mosquitos. I want to use my deck at night,” she said.

After hearing McBurney’s information, MacKenzie will be installing a bat box or two, she said.

Bat boxes are an option for some properties. They become a hideout where bats can sleep during the day.

The boxes are no bigger than a large shoebox, they’re made of wood and are open at the bottom.

Multi-chambered bat boxes are best, that’s when it has more than one compartment and looks a bit like a layer cake. The different chambers let the bat pick the best sleeping temperature.

Bat boxes should face south or east and be at least 10 feet, but ideally 12 - 20 feet, off the ground. Buildings or poles are best, not trees, because the branches might be in the way.

Anyone with outdoor cats should not put up a bat box, said McBurney. Cats can hear the bats and will hunt and catch them.

FASCINATING FLYERS

Researchers know these migratory hoary bats spend time on P.E.I. because they've captured their voices in recordings. - Alison Jenkins
Researchers know these migratory hoary bats spend time on P.E.I. because they've captured their voices in recordings. - Alison Jenkins

 

McBurney also dispelled some bat “mythconceptions” in her talk.

For instance, bats are not rodents. For one thing, they live a lot longer than the average hamster - bats can live up to 40 years.

“Then we have the whole vampire myth,” said McBurney.

Vampire bats are found in South America, as far north as Mexico, but they’re not as scary as they sound.

There are only three species of vampire bats and two of them prefer bird blood.

“The common vampire bat does prefer mammal blood, but do you think it would go for a human in a house locked away at night or a cow in a field?” She paused as the audience nodded. “The cow is a lot easier.”

Additionally, the tiny vampire bats only eat around one teaspoon at a time.

Vampire bats need to feed every few days. If one bat is having a bad night and can’t go out hunting, their neighbour will bring back supper.

“The neighbour vampire bat that does feed will regurgitate some blood and feed its neighbour, even though they’re not related. It’s not very common to see that in animals,” said McBurney.

Dina Blot, chairwoman of the board for the South Shore Watershed Association, left, and chiropterologist Tessa McBurney enjoy some refreshments at the restored Victoria schoolhouse March 6.  - Alison Jenkins
Dina Blot, chairwoman of the board for the South Shore Watershed Association, left, and chiropterologist Tessa McBurney enjoy some refreshments at the restored Victoria schoolhouse March 6. - Alison Jenkins

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