Be Careful Where You Tread – A Cautionary Tale for Halloween…

Not quite as large as a used tea bag but much the same shape and colour, the tiny thing lay, helpless, on the concrete just below my front doorstep, ideally positioned for an approaching foot to unknowingly flatten it. If it hadn’t been for the ever-questing eye of a visiting artist friend it would never have been spotted in the midst of our morning’s comings and goings.

Bats have been visiting our house since the first night we came to live here some forty years ago. Having finally convinced the children they should go to bed after all the excitement of moving, our eldest came charging down the stairs breathlessly claiming there was a bird in the bathroom. This was a new ruse and my husband and I exchanged exasperated glances as we took him upstairs to ‘inspect’ the bathroom and dissipate this latest myth. The child was instantly forgiven when we saw a little bat flying frantically round and round the room.

Once the excitement had died down and all was quiet I ventured into the bathroom again and noted the bat had stopped flying round and had attached itself to a fold in one of the curtains. “This sort of thing is your department,” said my husband, “I will fetch a ladder.”

“How kind.” I replied, never having coped with a bat or even thought about it. All I had heard was a silly tale about them getting caught in your hair at dusk (which I knew to be untrue as they have amazing sonar abilities that help them avoid crashing into things – I mean, for goodness sake, they must have to miss trees, branches, telegraph poles and wires in the dark of night – why would they get tangled in a person’s hair?) or, seducing you at midnight and drinking your blood. Bram Stoker (the writer of ‘Dracula’) has a lot to answer for. (I knew this was untrue too. Yes, there are blood sucking bats in South America but only suck it from livestock – absolutely none do that here).

On perusing it, its wings folded, hanging upside down onto the fabric by minute ‘hands’ – little hooks actually – I realised how ignorant I was and how terrified it must be in a brightly lit bathroom when it should have been zooming about in the dark.

It was eleven thirty and even if I had known of someone who could advise me what to do, I was not going to phone them at that time of night.

“Open the window.” I said to my distancing spouse. “I’ll grab it and throw it out.” Gingerly and with difficulty, I plucked the reluctant soul from the curtain, astonished at its soft fur, its warmth and its palpitating heart. How could anyone have turned one of these enchanting little animals into a horror story? It gripped my hand as it had the curtains and I hoped I was doing the right thing. Descending carefully I went to the window which my husband was holding open (albeit with an extremely outstretched arm) and offered the bat to the night. After clinging onto and hanging from my hand for a while, to my relief, it took off.

The next ‘bat’ occasion was when I found one in the attic. I knew they hibernated in winter but this one looked ever so slightly dead. Not knowing what a hibernating bat looked like and not wanting to ‘dispose’ of an animal that might not be dead, I rang the Belfast zoo. They put me in touch with a lady who rescued bats and used a large space at the zoo to give them flying tests to see if they were fit enough to go back into the wild. She agreed to see me plus my bat and give a verdict one way or the other. Sadly, it was decreed to be an ex bat.

Over the next forty years or so we had frequent night time bat visits into our bedroom and these had all, eventually, flown out again – with one exception which unfortunately we found drowned in the loo. I discovered later that bats slurp up water on the wing flying low over the surface like the Dam Busters. This can evidently have its problems with crocodile infested rivers which, of course, is not a problem here.

As I gazed down at my latest tiny visitor languishing in an old shoe box with holes punched in the lid, I wished I could find that lady’s name and number. Then I realised all I had to do was sit down and Google! However, there is so much information out there it was hard to know where to look – especially when I had so little time on a particularly busy day.

According to one site I had done all the right things – except I hadn’t worn gloves when I had picked the bat up – a cautionary measure when handling any wild animal – for their protection as well as the handler’s. It was now waiting in its box for nightfall when I could release it. It was mid-summer so by the time dusk came it was late and I only remembered about ‘the release’ as I was climbing into bed! Throwing on my dressing gown and a pair of shoes I grabbed the box and shuffled out onto the lawn, reckoning if the bat took off and crashed, the grass would be a kinder surface to land on. When I put my hand into the box the bat took hold of my finger. Its wings curled round in a kind of hug so I lifted my hand aloft to ‘introduce’ it to the night. Other bats were flying about, I hoped they may have been friends or relatives and would egg him or her on to take off and join them. No such luck. For at least half an hour I stood there with my hand in the air, hoping my next-door neighbours wouldn’t drive past on our shared lane and see me, in my pale blue dressing gown, spot-lit by the moon, giving the appearance of conducting some satanic ritual. Just as I was about to place the bat back in his or her box, he or she decided to stretch out a wing. This made me hope it was about to fly which gave my tired arm another boost of strength to remain upright. The slow, graceful extension of that prehistoric ‘hand’ belonging to one of the only mammals in the world that can fly made me hold my breath. The moonlight filtered through the translucent membranes between each ‘finger’ and all I could do was pray I was doing the right thing for this wonderful creature.

An hour later, I was slightly less enamoured now of the stretching and flexing of both wings and my aching arm had had enough. The bat obviously preferred the warmth of my finger and was snuggled round it for the night. I was more than ready for my bed but had to visit Google again to see what to do now. My main concern was the wee thing had not had anything to eat for many hours. (I later found out I could have given it tiny morsels of dog meat). I had also learned that a single bat can consume 3,500 insects in a night. Could it survive another day in the box with only water for sustenance?

This time Google came up with The Northern Ireland Bat Group and lots and lots of information that I could have done with earlier.

Again, it was late. I wasn’t going to phone anyone and the Bat Group had an online form to fill in which obviously wouldn’t be seen until the next day. I decided to try and let my wee friend go. Following instructions from another site, I set the box upright on high steps which led up to a loft and wedged it tight between two flower pots. Bats have to dangle before they can fly, or so I’d been told, so all he/she had to do was go to the edge, dangle and take off. And then I went to bed. The next morning the box was empty and I examined the ground around and about. I found no body and all I could do was hope my friend had flown away. Not knowing what had happened filled me with guilt and once again I felt my ignorance, tiredness and busyness had maybe led to disaster – a visiting cat? A fox?

I now know where to look for help. I also know bat numbers have become an extremely important indicator of how our ecological situation is faring, hence the large fines and sometimes prison sentences levied on those who destroy bat roosts and habitats.

Myriad web sites with facts about bats continue to loom at me from Google. Here are some:

Bats have ‘morphed’ over millions of years. They hang from their hind legs and their wings are really webbed hands, the thumbs being little hooks they attach themselves with.

The males sing to attract female mates.

Females have only one baby a year, usually in a ‘nursery’ where they help each other with birthing and sometimes even suckling each others’ new born.

The smallest bat can eat 3,500 insects in one night – so PLEASE no insecticides any more. Plant honeysuckle and night scented stock to attract insects at night. Bat conservation trusts in Scotland have received considerable funding to encourage bats in areas where midges can make life almost unbearable.

A bat’s sonar (laryngeal echolocation) emits twelve to fifteen squeaks per second which can help them home in on a prey or avoid obstacles – like people with silly hair.

A bat heart beats four times a minute when in hibernation and 1,000 times when awake and in flight.

A bat can fly at seven metres per second. There is a Mexican bat which can fly at one hundred miles per hour. (Yes, there is a mathematical sum there – I have given it to my grandson).

So, when Halloween comes round again, think more kindly of our incredible, shy, harmless little ‘swallows of the night’ and wish them undisturbed and peaceful winter hibernation.

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