Most evenings, about five minutes after sunset, you'll find me lying back in my zero-gravity chair on the rear deck, watching the sky. To my northwest, against the colors of the sunset, I watch a bat rise from nearby wooded property. That bat is followed by others, and they follow a route that takes them to a big Norfolk Island pine tree about 75 feet from me. Then the bats start to circle and capture flying insects.
I am mesmerized by their aerial agility. No bird can fly like this! No drone can equal these stops and turns and darting maneuvers. Top Gun can't do what these bats do every night. Even the Blue Angels come up short.
I know what you're thinking. Bats? Gross. They have ugly, alien-like faces, and they bite people or land in their hair. They carry rabies, too. The only good bat, you think, is one hung at Halloween or swung by a Tampa Bay Rays hitter.
So many of us have been so wrong about bats. They should be our buddies. We should protect them and their habitat. We might even put up a bat house and hope they take up occupancy. Know this: Every bat eats 600 to 1,200 insects, particularly mosquitoes, every hour of the night. The more bats, the fewer bites for us.
Florida has been a bat haven since before humans found our paradise. Bats date back at least 66 million years. Bats flew with pterodactyls. They swooped above dinosaurs. And they survived whatever extinction event wiped out much of terrestrial life on earth. (I think they were hanging upside down, asleep, in a protective cave, when a catastrophic firestorm blazed outdoors and made barbecue of Tyrannosaurus rex.)
There are 925 species of bats; Florida has 13 living here year-round. Most likely I'm seeing the Brazilian free-tailed bat, the Seminole bat, or the evening bat. They like our part of Florida. (Never fear, no vampire bats live here.) Bats like the caves of North Florida but do just fine in our area by sleeping under clay tiles on roofs, in buildings, or even concealed in a clump of Spanish moss. The fur of the moss-loving bat is colored so that the creature is virtually invisible from inches away.
Why, you might wonder, don’t we use these creatures for mosquito control? It's been tried. The most infamous example is the Sugarloaf Key Bat house in the lower Florida Keys. Back in 1929, a developer named Clyde Perky got the idea of erecting a large bat house that could tame the horrendous mosquito problem on his land.
Before it was completed, Perky's bat house cost him $10,000—a huge amount in those days. On March 15, 1929, the Key West High School marching band played as the house was dedicated. Now all it needed was … bats.
Perky bought bat bait. Yes, there is such a thing, and it cost Perky another $500, paid to an old man in Cuba. Perky put the bait in the house and waited.
He didn't wait long. A few months later, a hurricane struck and washed away all the bait. Perky wrote Cuba to order more. But the old man had died and taken the bat-bait secret to his grave. Perky's house was baitless and batless.
Bats never did occupy the elaborate bat house. It became a tourist attraction of sorts, just off U.S. 1 on Sugarloaf Key. There it stood until Hurricane Irma blew it down last year.
Today some Florida communities have bat houses, but the most famous houses can be found near the University of Florida in Gainesville. People come to watch thousands of bats rise from the houses into the darkening sky.
I'm thinking of erecting a bat house. It needs to be at least 20 feet up, in full sun, protected from the dangers of snakes and cats and small wild animals. It needs to be hot and cozy, too, if bats are going to make it their home. Alas, bats are finicky. They might move in. They might not.
In the meantime, my 7-year-old grandson has become a bat fan like his grandpa. When he stays with my wife and me, he dashes to the deck at sunset. I recline the zero-gravity chair and he climbs up with me. Together, we watch. We marvel. We bond.
Bob Bowden won a 2017 award from the Florida chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for “Frankenstorm,” a Sarasota Magazine article depicting the effects a monster hurricane could have on our community.
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