Season of the Bat

Courtesy photoLocal police and health officials are getting a lot of calls about bats in homes.

In the movie “Batman Begins,” there is a scene in which the superhero explains why he dresses in a bat costume to fight crime.

“Bats frighten me,” Batman says. “It’s time my enemies shared my dread.”

Most people have felt that fear when they hear a bat whirring near the ceiling of a darkened bedroom. The angst only intensifies when they turn the lights on, and the bat veers past them while it circles the room, trying to find a way out.

Even more unsettling than the behavior of bats is their appearance. As the world’s only flying mammals, with furry bodies, webbed wings and a face like a rodent’s, they look like bizarre evolutionary experiments.  

It’s small wonder that, at moments of encounter, some will turn to their town’s animal control officer for help in dealing with this winged presence.  

“I think it’s usually in the middle of the night, some people will panic and call,” said Kathryn Kozikowski, who was previously the animal control officer in North Andover, and now holds that job in Andover. “I do get quite a number of calls about bats in the house.”

Such intrusions are especially common now, in late summer, when young bats are learning to fly and feed on their own, as described in MassWildlife’s “Massachusetts Homeowner’s Guide to Bats.” 

“You might find these inexperienced young when they fall down a chimney, travel down the attic stairway, fly through an open window, or land on the ground,” said the guide’s seventh edition, published in 2020. 

The most important consideration in removing bats from the house is never to touch one with bare hands. The simplest solution is to keep them in one room by closing the door, then open a window so they can fly out.

But sometimes a bat will tire and cling to the wallpaper, or to the back of some curtains, and at this point they can be captured for removal.

“I will use what I have available to me, which usually is a cardboard box or Tupperware container,” Kozikowski said.   

After trapping the animal inside, and slipping a piece of carboard or heavy paper between the opening and the wall, the bat can be carried outside and released.

“If I don’t have either of those available, I’ll use a bird net,” Kozikowski said. “All of these make it easy enough to move the bat out of the house to a nearby branch where he can take off.” 

But if the bat was discovered and captured in a room where someone was sleeping, it should be handed over for rabies testing. 

“You don’t know if it landed on you and scratched on you,” said Ellen Bistany, animal control officer in Lawrence for 28 years. “Most of the cases, I’ve had to have it tested for rabies. I haven’t had any come back positive lately, but a while back I had one come back positive, and the whole family” had to have shots.

If bats appear in your house only rarely, there’s a chance that this visitor flew down the chimney or through an open door. That happened in Lawrence recently, in an incident that Bistany handled.

“The guy had opened his sliding door — he had an old dog — and he saw something fly in, and it went right into a kitchen cabinet,” Bistany said. “So he shut the door and locked it in.”

She retrieved the bat with a retractable bird net and, since there had been no contact with the man, let it go.

But if bats make recurring appearances inside a home, they are probably not accidental visitors, but rather permanent residents in an attic or wall. They may even be part of a colony, which MassWildlife defines as 10 or more bats living together.

Bats that live in attic colonies start looking for cooler locations in late summer, and sometimes crawl through openings near a pipe or vent into rooms below, which is another reason why intrusions are common at this time of year.

Anyone who suspects that they may be hosting a colony should know that animal control officers can’t help them, beyond providing some general advice.

“We’re not trained to go in and remove colonies,” Kozikowski said. 

Bats are protected in Massachusetts, because they have enormous ecological value as consumers of insects, and several species have been decimated by White-Nose Syndrome, which they get from a fungus in caves.

“Bats are scary, but they’re good,” Bistany said. “They eat all the mosquitoes.”

Only licensed Problem Animal Control agents can conduct a bat exclusion, and this time of year, from August 1 to mid-October, is one of two times during the year when they can do that.

An exclusion involves fixing one-way doors to the spots where bats enter and exit a house, then completely sealing off all other possible entrances, to keep bats from getting back inside after they leave at dusk to eat bugs.

If these passages were sealed earlier in the summer, before the young could fly, they would die inside the house when parents were unable to return and feed them. That would not only be bad for the bats, but would also create a health hazard for humans inside the house. 

The month of May is the only other time when exclusions are allowed, with the aim of keeping adults from getting inside and bearing their young.

The “Massachusetts Homeowner’s Guide to Bats” provides tips on helping people identify how and where these colonies are forming in their house.

It also provides information on different methods for conducting bat exclusions, along with plans for bat houses, which can  provide evicted bats with a new home.

But for anyone who would rather leave the job to a licensed agent, Kozikowski recommends hiring someone who specializes in bats, and who comes with a recommendation from someone they trust. Bistany said she tells renters who get bats inside to call their landlords, so they can handle it.

Chris Mulcahy of Pest-End, an exterminator that operates in Methuen and Plaistow, said his firm’s wildlife division has started more than 120 bat exclusions this season.

He said that bats, in addition to choosing houses that have cracks and crevices that they can enter, like to live in locations where they can find food.

“If you’re close to wetlands, and have lots of bugs in the area, there’s a reason they chose where they chose,” he said.

Mulcahy said that they use wire mesh to seal up alternate entry points, so squirrels can’t chew their way through. They also make their own one-way doors from plastic tubes.

“We create little fingers off the end, so that allows the bat to drop out, but it keeps the end of that one-way door a little tougher for them to find their way back,” he said.

Mulcahy said some people use hardware mesh for their one-way doors, but he thinks that could damage a bat’s wing.  He also said they never re-use the tubes, to make sure bats crawling through them won’t get White-Nose Syndrome.

“We treat every bat as though it was susceptible,” Mulcahy said.

The weather can effect how long it takes to exclude a colony, he said, but he tends to leave one-way doors in place for a month.

“Usually the bats are going to leave within a week or so,” Mulcahy said.

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