Levin: Missing the bats

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(HOST) There’s always lots of activity around commentator Ted Levin’s house on warm summer evenings, but this year, he says, something important is missing.  

(LEVIN) As an undergraduate in the heartland of Indiana, I spent a number of summer nights assisting one of my favorite professors with his bat-banding project. Now, banding bats is a lot like banding birds, except you have to be more careful when you remove a bat from a mist net – not because a bat is more delicate than a bird; in fact a bat is far more solid than a songbird of equal size – but because bats have sharp, little teeth and carry diseases you don’t want to get.

At twilight more than a thousand little brown- and big brown bats would leave their communal nursery in an old barn worn, down by years of rains and neglect. Once outside, the bats would troll the sky for insects. Exiting the barn, however, they had to pass through a gauntlet of mist nets. Each night, we wore headlamps and caught thirty or forty bats, and then fixed them with tiny aluminum anklets. The scene sizzled with bat-energy and reeked of ammonia. It was pure Hitchcock, with the barn, the fidgety nets in the doorway, and the airspace around the barn filled with bats that fluttered in and out of our two columns of lamplight.

The other day, I went to massage a lump out from underneath a handbill tacked to the outside of our barn, and was surprised when the lump turned out to be a little brown bat. It was motionless, attached to the barn wall by the claws of its hind feet. And it gave me pause.

Not so long ago, our two-stall horse barn was home to at least a dozen or so little brown bats. They roosted between the barn door and the wall. Half an hour after sunset, they would take wing over our pasture, each becoming the moving center of a limitless circle.  I’ve been barbequing a lot this summer. And I tend to grill in the early evening, when bats should be on patrol. But, except for the lone brown bat behind the sign and two or three others lured to our porch light like fish to chum, this summer my neighborhood has been bat-poor – and mosquito-rich.  
I miss our bats the way I missed the suburban butterflies and bees that had frequented my boyhood home in the late 1950s, and then suddenly vanished in a fog of backyard pesticides. Today, the loss of bats is front-page news in The New York Times and a science-staple for other media, but the chain of events that perpetuates white-nosed syndrome is not as directly tied to the missing bats as the application of pesticides was tied to the disappearance of our pollinators fifty-years ago.
So, it’s hard to say when – or even if – the bats will return to the vacant airspace above our pasture. In the meantime, their absence is both troubling and lonely, and what I do know for sure is that I miss them.

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