Spring may not be as far off as the calendar suggests. It's been persistently unwinterlike here in Vermont, and given that we're past the season's nadir, the rituals of the warmer months could be closer than we think. Here's one we should all add to our vernal to-do lists: bring the bats back to our belfries.
You've probably heard by now that bats are in serious trouble, specifically the little brown bat. The culprit is white nose syndrome (WNS), a fungus that doesn't kill outright but instead so successfully rouses bats from hibernation that they fly out of their caves into a foodless winter where they die of starvation, cold, or both.
The result has been a "batastrophe." According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as of last winter, more than 5.7 million bats have been killed by WNS, which scientists believe is an invasive species from Europe. With the fungus now spreading from the Northeast to the Great Lakes and as far west as Missouri, the little brown bat, once the most common bat species in many regions, is fluttering on the edge of extinction.
In many places, the loss of brown bats means no more bats at all and huge potential impacts. Scientists estimate that the bats lost to WNS would have eaten nearly 4,000 tons of insects every year, and that translates to big effects on agriculture, not to mention how buggy it gets on a summer night.
But there is some good news. A handful of unaffected brown bat colonies have been discovered. No one knows why they're healthy -- genetic, geographic, or behavioral reasons could be responsible -- but whatever the reason, the surviving colonies are giving bat lovers (that should be everyone!) hope that bats can make a comeback.
In the meantime, we can all help. According to experts, the single biggest step we can take is to put up bat houses around our homes. These simple shelters give bats a safe place to bear and raise their young, and erecting them in early spring means they'll be ready when bats begin looking for their summer home.
Bat houses are easy to build or buy, and they install with nearly zero elbow grease. Following a few basic rules about size, design, location, and color will greatly increase the odds that bats will move into the houses you provide. Bat Conservation International offers pre-built houses, plans, tips, and more in a great online guide that has all you need to know.
Don't let the old wives' tales fool you. Bats are harmless friends to humanity who have been helping us in some very big ways for a very long time. This spring, put up some bat houses and return the favor.