Our bats are missing in action.
The small clearing behind our Vermont vacation house is a neighborhood diner for little brown bats, the area’s most common species. Two to six of the creatures customarily show up at dusk every spring and summer evening, doing their part to keep a lid on the local population of flying insects. A little brown bat can eat its own weight in bugs every night.
City folk that we are, it took us awhile to recognize what we were seeing after we bought the house a few years ago. I have always been a big fan of bats, so I was delighted to have them around. My wife Linda took a little longer to adapt, but then she, too, began to enjoy looking for them outside our sliding glass door every night.
Things got more interesting last year. A few bats made a roost between our sheet-metal roof and the living-room ceiling. That led to a mess in the living room until we sealed up some cracks. Late in the summer, one particular bat decided to take the scenic route — through our house — on his way to dinner every evening. I named him Mortimer. Just after sunset each day, Mortimer would wiggle through a tiny gap in the wallboards and fly around the house.
Linda was not amused. As she locked herself in the bedroom, I played mammal lacrosse, jumping around with a broom while I shouted and tried to usher Mortimer through the doors that I would leave open for his convenience. This went on for several nights, including one on which Mortimer, probably a fledgling juvenile, brought along his mother so he could show off.
Eventually I covered Mortimer’s gap in the wall with duct tape and we summoned a specialist in bat eviction and exclusion. After a lot of plugging under the eaves and the installation of a one-way bat exit door, we had a house free of flying creatures. As the first snows fell last autumn, all was right in the clearing.
Now, however, something is seriously wrong. Our bats have most likely fallen victim to a mysterious disease known as White Nose Syndrome, or WNS. WNS attacks bats during their winter hibernation, disturbing their rest and causing them to burn precious fat reserves. Some bats die in their winter cave dens. Emaciated survivors emerge too early to find enough food to sustain themselves. Mortality in some colonies has been estimated at 90 percent.
The disease gets its name from a ring of white fungus that appears around the bat’s muzzle and on its wing folds. Researchers do not yet know whether the fungus is a cause or a symptom of the condition.
WNS was first observed two years ago by spelunkers who found thousands of dead bats in caverns in upstate New York. It spread into southwestern Vermont last year. This year, it has made its way to our area in east-central Vermont and has been detected as far away as Virginia. From there, it threatens to spread through the heartland of America’s bat population in the vast limestone caves that flank the Appalachians. Bat experts are very worried.
I did not see a single bat last week during my first extended stay at the house this season. Looks like it will be a buggy summer in Vermont.