Around this time of year, bats get a bad rap. With those admittedly spooky silhouettes appearing next to ghosts and monsters, they can get lumped in with the scary stuff of the season. But we spoke to Scott Heinrichs, a bat conservationist and founder and director of the Flying Fox Conservation Fund, to get the real scoop on the much-maligned flying creatures.
Why should people like bats?
Because they're probably the most beneficial mammal we have on the planet. Fruit bats pollinate over 400 plants and trees in the tropics. A lot of these plants produce things that humans utilize: papaya, coffee, mango, a lot of stuff. They're also the main pollinators of a lot of cactus plants and desert plants, so without them we wouldn't have agave nectar or tequila.
How many species of bats are there and how many live in Illinois?
There are over 1,250. What's cool about bats is that researchers and conservationists are always finding new species. There are 12 different species in Illinois. All the bats in Illinois are insect-eating bats, good for humans. One big brown bat can eat up to 1,000 mosquitoes in an hour.
Where are the best spots to see bats?
In Illinois, there's Volo Bog. And there's a little gazebo in the Lake County Forest Preserve, Shelter E, with over 500 little brown bats that took up residency there about 10 years ago. Or you can go to your neighborhood park; at dusk, you see them flying around the light eating mosquitoes. Or Lincoln Park Zoo and Brookfield Zoo.
What's the most common question you get asked about bats?
A lot of people ask: why do bats hang upside down? It's easier for them to take off and fly. Birds have hollow bones and are very light; bats are very heavy. They don't have the muscle or skeleton to stand. Their wings are actually their hands: elongated fingers with thin skin membrane over it. A lot of people also ask me if they carry diseases, but less than 1 percent of bats carry rabies.
What are some misconceptions about bats?
A lot of people say bats are blind; that's not true at all. If you look at some of the micro-bats, they have very small eyes. But the flying foxes that we mainly work with have perfect eyesight. They use their eyesight to find food.
Why are people often scared of bats?
When most people see bats, it's at night and they just see a dark, shadowy thing fluttering around near them. And they buy into all the vampire stories. There are only three species of bats that feed on blood, and they're all in Central and South America.
If you come into contact with a bat, what should you do?
The best advice I can give someone if they find a bat is to leave it alone and call an animal control person. If you find it on the ground or injured, most likely it will be sick.
Anything that you really want us to know?
Try to learn about bats. They're really fascinating creatures. They're beneficial. They're one of the most gentle creatures on the planet. If you leave them alone, they'll leave you alone. They need to be understood and protected.
Elizabeth Diffin is the associate editor at Chicago Parent. She lives in Wheaton.
See more of Elizabeth's stories here.