‘Sympathy for the Devil’

Jan 4, 2024 | Spotlight

(Editor’s note: Image provided by James Wainscoat at Unsplash.)

By Sara Kate-Wiseman

In his backyard in Nashville, Daniel Burt built a small structure out of scrap plywood that attracts and houses creatures many people may find icky.

It measures 2 feet-by-20 inches, a creation that provides a summertime refuge for dozens of bats. 

The small, winged mammals Burt lures to his yard are just the sort of critter many other homeowners spend money to remove. In a culture that mostly fears and demonizes bats, pest-control businesses annually respond to hundreds of calls from people looking to shoo bats away from their houses. 

“Bats are creepy,” Shareen Dunn said. “They do nothing except carry disease and scare people.”

 The Centers for Disease Control target bats as the leading cause of human rabies deaths in the United States. But bat conservationists stress that not all bats have rabies. In fact, most don’t, according to the CDC. Bat experts, called chiropterologists, say the animals are no more likely to carry or spread disease than any other creature, despite the myth about COVID-19’s having started with bats.

The only thing the critters in Burt’s yard spread is good will, he says.

Burt is aware of how quickly and drastically bat populations are dwindling and wants to help. “I want to support the local wildlife in any way I can,” he says. 

Their presence created a sense of community in the neighborhood of farmers and gardeners, who have become fond of the critters that flock to Burt’s yard. 

 To the growing number of people building houses or cultivating gardens designed to attract species of chiroptera, bats are the new butterfly — fluttering, fascinating conversation-starters in the back yard.

Except bats do something butterflies don’t, something bat haters may be surprised to learn since it’s an actual benefit of sharing the world with these winged mammals: Bats devour insects humans hate even more than winged things with fangs. Like mosquitos. 

Consider the bats that flock to the two little houses Burt built, each of which sits atop a 17-foot pole. They’re mainly brown bats, which can eat thousands of insects in one night. That helps protect crops and gardens from insects, Burt says.

 Burt has always been interested in wildlife, but he took a liking to bats because of their benefits to his community. He lives in a pocket of farmers and gardeners who look at their land from the perspective of how they can improve it. Since they couldn’t spray toxic pesticides to keep bugs away, Burt built two bat houses. 

 Climate change and disease have decimated bat populations, leaving the animals few places to hide from. White Nose Syndrome, a fungus that grows on bats and is typically fatal to them, has been found in bats at a Western Kentucky University research cave. The disease has wiped out 90 percent of some bat populations, says Rick Toomey, director of the Mammoth Cave International Center for Science and Learning. 

The disease has killed off several species of bats altogether. 

Burt’s family and neighbors aren’t all that surprised by his weird obsession. They share in it, in fact. When the bats migrate to the houses he built for them each summer, it creates a stronger sense of community because it brings people outside, he says. 

People who want to attract bats with special gardens that appeal to the animal must have plants that stay open during the nighttime, which is when bats eat, says Kristin Lear, who studies horticulture for Bat Conservation International. Light-colored flowers also are helpful, and plants that have an odor. And dead trees. These things draw in a diverse population of insects, Lear says, for bats to have a feast.

Burt and other providing backyard refuges for bats do it out of compassion — “Sympathy for the Devil,” as goes the Rolling Stones hit.

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