Bats in Texas
Eileen Berger Indian Trail Master Naturalist
Rebecca Schumacher, a member of Indian Trail chapter of Texas Master Naturalists, recently presented an informative program about bats in Texas. Bats belong to the order Chiroptera. They are not mice with wings, since rats and mice belong to the order Rodentia. Of 1000 bat species worldwide, Texas is home to 33 species. All the Texas species are insect eaters, but bats also eat frogs, lizards, nectar and fruit. Many misconceptions about bats have historically prejudiced man against these important insect eaters and plant pollinators. One belief is that bats want to get tangled in a human’s hair, which is comical when you actually think about it. Have you ever heard of that actually happening? The most talked-about bat is of course the vampire bat, which does not occur in North America. In South America where these bats live, a scout from the colony selects that night’s “host”. The whole colony drinks a total amount of one teaspoon of one animals’ blood per night. The scout then makes sure that animal does not get bitten again for 3 weeks, the amount of time it takes for the animal to replace its blood supply. Usual victims are chickens or cattle, not people.
All bats can be separated into two groups, according to the places where they roost. Foliage-roosting bats hang in trees where they stay during the day. These bats do not live in colonies, but roost singly unless a mother bat has babies. She may have from 2 to 4 babies, which she carries with her on her nightly flights to eat insects. The babies cling to her fur while she flies. These bats have fur-covered tails which help keep the bat warm, since each bat is not able to cuddle up next to another bat in cold weather. One of these foliage bats is the Eastern Red Bat.
Crevice-roosting bats can be found in buildings, caves, under bridges and on other structures which provide the surface these bats need to cling to and the shelter to protect them. They live in large colonies, and do not have fur on their tails. One of the most well-known of the crevice bats in Texas is our official flying mammal of Texas, the Mexican Free-tail bat. In other Central and South American countries it is called the Brazilian Free-tail. Large colonies of these bats can be seen at Bracken Bat Cave and the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin. Twenty million bats live in the Bracken Cave.
In North and South America, bats pollinate many of our favorite foods including bananas, peaches, corn, avocados, and vanilla. They also pollinate cotton, agave, and saguaro cactus. Our Texas bats are all insect eaters. It is estimated that the bats from Bracken Cave eat 250 tons of insects a night. Their value to agriculture is between $3 and $53 billion yearly. Bats in the rain forests of South America are responsible for distributing seeds of the rain forest flora.
Since bats cannot take flight from the ground, they must roost high in the air and drop. Occasionally, they become grounded due to storms or misadventure. If you should happen to find one, do not touch the bat with your bare hands, as they can carry rabies. Bat rehabilitators, including Rebecca, urge individuals who might discover a bat on the ground to use a shoe box to scoop up the bat. Place a t-shirt half inside the box with the other half outside. Wait until one hour before dark, and if your bat is clinging to the t-shirt, take the shirt to the tallest tree you can access. Attach the shirt to the tree and walk away. The bat will then have the height it needs to take flight. If the bat is bleeding or obviously injured, retrieve it safely and call a rehabber. Use the internet to find the one closest to you, or call your veterinarian or local animal shelter. Offer to meet the person halfway or donate some money for gas, as they are not paid for their time and depend on donations to support their efforts.