Donal Hickey: Battling for bat survival

Donal Hickey: Battling for bat survival

Even though long summer evenings, when bats emerge at dusk to devour flying insects, are the best time to see them, many people associate bats more with this time of year.

This tradition probably dates back to the ancient pagan festival of Samhain, now Halloween, when people would gather around massive bonfires to ward off evil spirits. The bonfires drew huge numbers of flying insects which in turn attracted bats.

Very soon, bats will disappear as they begin their long, winter hibernation, starting at the end of this month and continuing until March or April. Bats are protected here under the Wildlife Acts and should not be disturbed, especially during hibernation or breeding periods.

There are many myths about this creature. The expression, ‘’as blind as a bat’’, is nonsense. Bats may hunt in the dark and usually find their way by sound. Echoes of noises they make bounce off objects and help them navigate.

But, that doesn't mean bats are blind, according to LiveScience. Studies show some of the 1,300 species worldwide prefer using eyesight to sound when hunting. And many fruit bats, which drink nectar rather than hunt insects, don't travel by sound at all.

Hollywood has never done bats any favours. Horror films portray them as spooky, vampire-like creatures which suck human blood. But, rest easily if you are out walking in bat-frequented areas these dark evenings _ all nine species of Irish bats eat only insects.

And they help us get through clammy summer evenings when a single pipistrelle can, amazingly, eat upwards of 3,000 midges. They also play a useful role with pollination and seed dispersal.

A tiny minority of bats do consume human blood, however, as scientists discovered a few years ago. The hairy-legged, vampire bat, inhabits forests in parts of Latin America and is one of three species of vampire bats that feed only on blood.

It was thought that birds were its sole prey, but dung analysis revealed that humans were on the bats' bill of fare, says Live Science. And the reason? The view is that when birds are hard to find they turn to humans for blood, striking when people are asleep.

In Ireland, meanwhile, bats are preparing for winter. As their body temperature lowers and activity levels drop, they use less energy and live on the fat they have stored up instead of trying to hunt for food.

You might still see them out on mild nights chasing down food, if the need arises. But they will be shortly starting to settle down in cellars, caves or old buildings where temperatures are suitably moist and cool. Like other wildlife, most of our bat species have suffered decline in recent years.

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