By Rachel Hamilton and Darren Sleep
When thinking about bats, you might be reminded of the saying “blind as a bat” or remember one of the many movie scenes where a bat is tangled in someone’s hair — or perhaps the fangs associated with blood-sucking vampires. These tropes about bats help give them the universally creepy and spooky allure that makes them centuries-old inspiration for Halloween. But these associations are mostly myths based on half-truths.
In fact, we at SFI would like to clear up a few of these misconceptions and take a moment this Bat Week (annually timed to coincide with the week of Halloween) to share our appreciation for the ways forests and bats work together. Bats are not blind (they actually have rather good vision for nocturnal creatures), but they do rely on echolocation, which is essentially “sound-radar,” to help them locate and capture prey. This unique navigational trait is also why bats don’t get tangled in your hair… no matter how long it is. As for the vampire connection, vampire bats do exist in Central and South America, feeding mostly on sleeping birds and mammals. They don’t turn into human-like creatures that fear the sun and a delicious piece of garlic bread!
What is less known about bats is far more interesting:
- Bats are pollinators, their feces have been used as fertilizer for hundreds of years, and they are significant factors in the control of insect and pest populations.
- Bats are found almost everywhere in the world and are particularly abundant in forests
Bats can often be detected at night zipping between trees and above the canopies of forests worldwide, especially in North America, where forests sustainably managed to the SFI standards provide significant bat habitat. In the Canadian boreal, it’s not unusual to find colonies of mother bats and their pups living together in aspen trees, sometimes in hundreds at a single location.
- Bats do have a scary issue affecting their health and survival
Described as “the most precipitous wildlife decline in the past century in North America”, white-nose syndrome (WNS), a fungal infection deadly to bats, was first identified in a cave in New York in 2006 and has now spread across bats in much of eastern North America. The fuzzy white fungus often appears on the face and wings of hibernating bats, causing them to wake more frequently during hibernation, burning up important fat stores needed to survive the winter. WNS has resulted in the death of millions of bats and contributed to the listing of several species as “imperiled” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the Canadian Species at Risk Act.
Bats are an important component of forests and how they are managed. At SFI, biodiversity values and ensuring protection for threatened and endangered species — including bats — have become an important focus of what we do.
SFI’s collaborations support bat conservation to help protect our flying friends. Through SFI’s Conservation Grants Program, SFI funded Nature Conservancy of Canada’s conservation grant project to help protect bats from WNS, in partnership with International Forest Products and British Columbia Timber Sales. The project identified significant bat hibernation sites in British Columbia and resulted in installing cave gates on the abandoned Queen Victoria Mine, which enable entry by bats while keeping people out. Reducing human access to bat roosting and hibernating sites limits disturbances and decreases the risk of human-caused spread of WNS. Though WNS has not yet been found in British Columbia, it has been found in neighboring Washington State – and may only be a matter of time before it spreads northward.
SFI has also collaborated on research to look at how bats use forests following harvest and regrowth. Working with the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement, Inc., the Forest Products Association of Canada, and the University of Regina, we joined a conservation project examining the use of SFI-certified forest areas harvested 25 years ago to see the effect on bat populations. Researchers found that bats returned to previous levels of activity as the forest’s trees, bugs, and bushes also returned.
SFI also engages in community outreach and youth education to raise awareness about bat conservation. Earlier in the year, SFI’s Community Grants Program funded the Minnesota SFI Implementation Committee’s Forest Bat Habitat Improvement Project, which collaborated with the Boy Scouts of America to build and erect over 100 bat roosting boxes from SFI-certified wood donated by Norbord Inc. (now West Fraser). In the summer, bats can be found roosting in trees, caves, buildings, and under bridges. Bat boxes provide an alternative “housing” option, particularly for mother bats to raise their young in the summer, which promotes bat population health for these declining species in Northern Minnesota, where they are particularly vulnerable to WNS.
To further introduce and connect youth to the world of bats, SFI is celebrating Bat Week, which annually occurs in the last week of October, from the 21st to Halloween, the 31st. Project Learning Tree, an award-winning educational initiative of SFI, compiled a great selection of resources to engage youth in learning about and celebrating bats through activities, arts, and crafts for a variety of ages. Through education, research, and engaging partnerships at various levels, SFI hopes to dispel some misconceptions about bats, raise awareness about challenges they face, and highlight the critical role bats play in helping sustain our forests and contributing to our everyday lives.