Halloween night has fallen, and the bats are coming out to play.
En masse, they darken the full moon. They cluster in caves, crevices and even under low-hanging bridges. They feed by night.
Such is the mystique of the bat that this otherwise unassuming creature strikes fear into the hearts of many and has spawned legions of legends, myths and old wives’ tales among Native and non-Native peoples alike. But modern-day experts recognize the hapless bat as a boon to farmers, a keeper of the environment—and, as with so many contemporary creatures, endangered.
Like Indigenous Peoples existing in the modern era, bats exist in two worlds—a mammal that flies, defying definition as either bird or animal—as the Muskogee Creek tell it in “Why Bats Are Classified as Animals,” on the website of the historical museum of the Muskogee Creek Indian community of North Florida. It all started with a ball game between the animals and the birds. Which team could the bat play on?
“The animals said, ‘You can’t play on our team because you fly, you have to play with the birds,’ ” The Museum Inc. says on its bat-tale website. “The birds said, ‘Oh no, you can’t play on our team because you don’t have feathers, you have fur, you have hair just like the animals.’ ”
Finally the animals let the bat play on their team. Lo and behold, the bat out-birds the birds, and takes the animals to victory. Then, naturally, both sides want to claim the bat as their own. It takes a rat to rule that the bat is an animal because it has teeth.
In other cultures bats are either vilified as tricksters and harbingers of evil, or celebrated as portents of fertility or rescuers of the sun. The Ojibwe say that the bat began with a squirrel that helped the sun out of a jam. The orb, tangled in a tree, could not rise as it was supposed to. The squirrel gnawed at branches until the sun could break free, but not before sacrificing eyesight and tail.
Blinded and off balance, blackened by its exposure to the sun, the squirrel clings to the topmost tree branches, unable to move. The sun, wanting to thank his benefactor, asks what his greatest wish is.
“I have always wanted to fly,” the squirrel confesses.
“Little Brother, from now on you will be an even better flier than the birds,” the sun replies, bestowing upon the squirrel a pair of leathery wings. “From this time on, you will sleep when I rise into the sky and when I say goodbye to the world each evening, you will wake.”
Blinded, the squirrel “could not look at Sun, but he held the joy of Sun in his heart,” the legend goes, and so he becomes the first bat as he takes to the sky.
The real bat story is just as interesting but far less glamorous, according to experts who study them.
“Bats are docile mammals that help farmers and lead lives similar to ours: They hang out with friends, care for their young and go out to eat at night,” reports California Bountiful, a magazine put out by the California Farm Bureau Federation.
Swooping and gobbling their weight in insects each night, bats save farmers $53 billion annually by minimizing the need for pesticides and reducing insect-related crop damage, the magazine says in its September-October issue. They also pollinate plants and disperse seeds, according to Bat Conservation International, a nongovernmental organization.
There are about 925 species of bats, and they comprise 20 percent of all mammal species, according to the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology. And much that is believed about them is erroneous.
“Contrary to popular myths, bats are not blind, do not become entangled in human hair and seldom transmit disease to other animals or humans,” Bat Conservation International says on its website.
But they are also in grave danger from a plague called white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that attacks the bats as they hibernate.
“It’s a fungus that grows on the face and wings of hibernating bats, and it’s very irritating, so the bats wake up and burn fat tissue and can’t make it through the winter,” Rachael Long, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Yolo County, told California Bountiful.
The fungus played into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recent proposal to list the northern long-eared bat as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, the agency said in an October 18 statement.