Bats: Fact and Fiction
Updated: Jan 2, 2019
If you look in the sky above your yard around dusk, you may catch a glimpse of a bat on its nightly insect hunt. The combined area of Santa Barbara County, Ventura County, and San Luis Obispo County is home to about 18 species of bats*. Bats are a natural part of a healthy ecosystem, and even benefit humans by controlling the mosquito population. Unfortunately, many of the popular beliefs surrounding bats are not true, and cause people to misunderstand the animals as dangerous and/or be afraid of them. Read on for the truth (and untruth) behind some of these myths.
Myth: "Bats are flying rodents."
Although a bat may resemble a mouse with wings, bats and rodents are two separate groups of animals with different characteristics and ecological roles. Taxonomically, bats belong to the order Chiroptera (meaning "hand-wing") while rodents belong to the order Rodentia (meaning "gnawing.") One physical feature that shows bats are not really flying mice is that bats lack the specialized gnawing teeth characteristic of rodents, since their food sources (insects for Santa Barbara's bats, fruit for some others) are different and don't require gnawing.
Myth: "Bats are blind." The expression "blind as a bat" is not accurate. Although some bats navigate using mainly echolocation, they are not blind. Echolocation is simply a more efficient way for some bats to find small, fast-moving insects at night. Other bats, such as the tropical fruit bats, don't echolocate and instead use their sharp vision to find a meal. Some can even see types of light that humans cannot, such as ultraviolet.
Myth: "All bats have rabies."
Some bats do have rabies, but most likely the bats you see flying above your yard do not. Rabies is a serious disease that causes illness in the bat itself as well as other mammals, so a bat with rabies will most likely be acting abnormally and not just hunting insects like usual. It may be out in the daytime, acting aggressive, and/or unable to fly. That said, bats can have rabies, and you can get rabies from a rabid animal if it bites you. So if you get bitten by a bat, or if you find a potentially rabid bat in a room where you have been sleeping (in case you were bit at night and didn't know) call Animal Control and/or your physician- you may need the rabies vaccines. (And no, the rabies vaccines are no longer the painful procedure you may have heard of. The modern treatment involves around six injections, spaced over a couple weeks, that are given in the muscles and are no more painful than any other vaccine.)
Myth: "Bats will get tangled in your hair."
Beliefs involving bats getting into human hair are pure superstition. Bats have no reason to get caught in anyone's hair. If one swoops down in your direction at night, it's because there's an insect near you that it's chasing, not because it wants to get stuck in your hair. Bats are great at navigating, since they need that ability to catch insects, so they won't accidentally fly into your hair either.
Living in Harmony with Bats
Bats are beneficial creatures to have around, and many species are threatened or declining. One way to help bats is to put up a bat house in your yard.
One human-bat conflict that sometimes occurs is when bats take up residence in someone's attic, garage, or other unwanted location. To prevent this from happening, do a full inspection of your buildings to look for possible entry holes, and cover up the holes with wood, spray foam, steel wool, or 1/4 inch hardware cloth.
If you find a bat trapped in a building, call the wildlife helpline at Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network, (805) 681-1080 for advice on what to do. If you find a bat that is injured or sick, Santa Barbara WIldlife Care Network will take it in and have it rehabilitated by a local bat expert. If there is any possibility you may have been bitten, also call your physician.
*This statistic was obtained from https://www.independent.com/news/2008/oct/28/dont-be-bat-freaked-halloween/