Each spring and summer, as they have for decades, a maternal colony of small brown bats returns to the attic at the historic Hovander House.
The females each give birth to one baby bat, known as a pup, and raise them in the big, hot space in the attic. When the mothers go out at night to eat insects, the pups, which are born naked, huddle together for warmth. There could be 1,000 bats or more roosting in the house at Hovander Homestead Park in Ferndale during a season, although no one is certain of the actual number.
On Friday, Aug. 7, a small group of children and adults waited on a lawn outside the front of the house for the bats, a resident species known as Yuma myotis, to emerge. They did at nightfall, their squeaks audible even if their rapid zigzagging flights from the house were hard to see against the darkening sky.
It was easier to pick out the bats when they skimmed near other watchers as they hunted for insects, such as mosquitoes, that were drawn to the people.
“Whoa. Hello. Holy cow,” group members said when they spotted the bats.
The group was there as part of a family field trip organized by Wild Whatcom, a nonprofit that teaches county residents about the natural world around them. There to help answer questions was Bellingham resident Patricia Otto, a longtime bat advocate who describes herself as an amateur naturalist.
“They’re so small, they can fly out of a tiny, tiny crack,” Otto said in response to a child’s question.
The bats are up to 5.6 inches long and weigh as much as 0.34 ounces.
This summer might be the last for people to see the bats, one of 15 bat species found in Washington state, emerging from Hovander House at dusk.
The Whatcom County Parks Department wants to keep them from coming back next year. The house, which is more than a century old, will get a new roof this fall once all of the bats have left. (The attic is too cold for them in winter.) The bats’ entry points will be sealed as part of the roofing project.
Keeping them out next year probably won’t be easy, especially since the old house has a number of cracks and crevices.
“They can get into a space that is one-quarter-inch wide. They just scrunch down,” said Kathleen Bander, a Bellingham-area bat advocate and founder of Bats Northwest who will be working to try to keep the bats out of Hovander House.
“That’s a lovely historical place, it needs to be preserved,” said Bander, who some years ago won a state grant to put up a bat house for nursing bats that is close to Hovander House.
That alternate space hasn’t really been used.
“They’re very loyal to a place that they love,” Bander said. “They’re very picky about where they raise their babies.”
“They’re going to stay in their spot because it’s perfect,” Otto said of the bats’ preference for the attic at Hovander House, adding that there have been previous efforts to ban the bats from the attic.
Completed in 1903, the furnished house is the legacy of a pioneering Swedish family and is open on weekends until Labor Day for public tours. At least the first floor is, but the second story is blocked off and the floor there is peppered with what looks like dark, wild rice but is actually bat guano. A ceiling was put in, with a hole for a ladder for access, to block off the bats from the rest of the house and the public.
“The bat urine, and the droppings inside the house, is not only unsanitary but it’s a health concern,” said Michael McFarlane, director of Whatcom County Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees Hovander Homestead Park.
In the attic on Tuesday, Aug. 11, at least a couple of hundred bats were huddled together and hanging upside-down from the rafters. Plastic was spread on the floor below them and certain spots, where a high number of bats likely roosted, were darkened with piles of droppings.
Dennis Conner, a former park ranger at Hovander who said the bats have been there for at least 38 years, remembered cleaning up their guano.
“We’re talking a lot. We’re not talking a small amount here, so you can understand the gravity of the situation as far as soiling the whole building,” Conner said, noting that the droppings have destroyed some of the artifacts in the house.
But others are concerned about where the bats will go next year.
“The question is, are you making any accommodations for those bats that have been coming there for generations,” said Holly Roger, the community programs coordinator who was leading the Wild Whatcom bat night on Aug. 7.
Yuma myotis are considered common in Washington, but population sizes and trends aren’t known, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. However it’s not among the five species of bats recently identified by state wildlife officials as needing help to ensure their long-term survival.
Will the next nursing colony go to the bat house that was erected near Hovander House?
“We don’t know if they’ll use it,” Bander said. “They’ll go around and look for the best place. It’s kind of a crapshoot.”
Otto said that when she talked to the parks department about previous efforts to keep the bats out of the attic, she was told the primary concern was rabies. She felt those fears were overstated; fewer than 1 percent of bats are infected with rabies, she said.
The Washington state Department of Health said two residents have died from rabies in 20 years. Both were infected by bats. Nationally, an average of two to three people die a year from rabies, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“They’re right in a way. There is a minute risk,” Otto said.
And histoplasmosis, a disease caused by a fungus and associated with high concentrations of bat and bird droppings, is found primarily in the Midwest. It is rare in Washington state.
To Otto, the bats should be allowed to stay in the attic and be celebrated for the natural wonders that they are and for what they do.
“These bats are doing a great service to the whole surrounding area cleaning up insects,” she said. “Without creatures eating insects for us, we’d have to use way more pesticides and toxic chemicals in our landscapes. These bats are part of this whole food web, this whole balance that’s going on in our county.”
Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
ON THE WEB
▪ Bats Northwest at batsnorthwest.org.
▪ Bats Conservation International at batcon.org.
▪ Wild Whatcom at wildwhatcom.org.
▪ Hovander House at co.whatcom.wa.us. Type “Hovander Homestead Park” into the search window and then click on “Historical Tours.”
FIVE MYTHS ABOUT BATS
Conservationists say bats are misunderstood.
By way of example, they point to these five myths about their favorite flying mammal.
▪ Bats want to suck your blood. There are three vampire bat species, out of more than 1,300 bat species, that feed on blood. None are in North America, all are in Latin America. Just one targets mammals. The bats don’t suck blood so much as lap it up, like kittens do with milk. Meanwhile, a powerful anticoagulant found in the saliva of vampire bats, which they use to keep blood from clotting, has been developed into medication that helps prevent strokes in people.
Washington state bats eat vast quantities of night-flying insects, including moths, beetles, mosquitoes, termites and flies.
▪ Bats are blind. Nope. They see as well as most mammals and have the benefit of a sonar system called echolocation, which lets them navigate and hunt fast-flying insects in the dark. Using echolocation, they can detect obstacles as fine as a human hair.
“They’re basically screaming at the top of their lungs in pulses of very high-frequency sounds that are not audible to us; thank goodness, or nights would be quite loud,” said Patricia Otto, a Bellingham bat advocate and amateur naturalist.
▪ Bats get tangled in your hair. No. See echolocation above. It might feel like a bat could get tangled in your hair if its gets close, but it’s probably chasing the mosquito that’s attracted to you.
▪ Bats are flying mice. Wrong. They are mammals, but they’re not rodents. They’re more closely related to humans than to mice and rats.
▪ All bats have rabies. That’s not true. Public health and wildlife officials said that less than 1 percent of bats in the wild are infected with rabies.
Still, if you see a bat on the ground, leave it be.
“Everyone has to know with bats you don’t handle them, you don’t pick them up from the ground, you leave them alone,” Otto said. “ If you see a bat on the ground, it’s sick. You must leave it alone.”