Alaska News

Bats in Alaska: Battling our flying pests

LAKE CLARK -- An elbow to my ribs was my wife's chosen method to jar me from a deep sleep.

"This big moth keeps brushing against my cheek," Anne said. We switched on bedside LEDs and found that the wings belonged not to a moth, but a bat. It was 2 a.m., and we quickly shed our sleepy stupor. The bat flew erratic and rapid laps inside our small cabin. How it got in, we'd solve later -- we needed to usher it outside, pronto.

I removed the screen from the kitchen window and opened it wide. Then I grabbed two pillows and told Anne to stand back. Lucky flying mammal that it was, the bat couldn't see me standing in my underwear, hair pointing in all directions, clutching a big, fluffy marshmallow in each hand.

Each time the bat darted toward me, I'd flash a pillow in its path, its echolocation kicked in, and the bat turned toward the kitchen. A step forward and I'd ready myself for another, faster-paced round. I must have looked like a crazed boxing trainer catching jabs from an imaginary heavyweight contender.

Though my technique severely lacked style points, it worked. The bat flew out. We shut the window and began sleuthing, finally figuring that the bat must have entered through our barrel stove's open draft. We passed off the event as an anomaly, shut the draft and went back to bed.

A few weeks later, our wee hours were interrupted again by our dog's whine and a faint scratching sound. Our typically sound-sleeping canine wouldn't settle down even after our pleas and mild scolding. We reluctantly pried ourselves from bed to discover a bat trapped inside the barrel stove. Thinking I had this game figured out, I armed myself with pillows and confidently swung open the stove door. It flew out quickly, but this bat wasn't so easily herded. My lack of ambidextrous coordination was out of sync with its choppy flight pattern. By the time the critter made his escape, I was nearly exhausted.

Small mesh screens around our stovepipe caps terminated that little late-night activity.

In the belfry

A few years later, tiny mouse-like droppings started collecting in the loft of the old cabin we use for guests. The mystery didn't take long to solve: Bats had decided to colonize the attic. They'd been up there before, but not to this extreme. No one was interested in harming the bats; we just wanted them to relocate.

Craig, my brother-in-law, researched electronic forms of pest control, then ordered and hooked up the most highly regarded device. Alas, we couldn't tell that it was doing anything except draining the battery.

Craig's wife, Gail, dedicated herself to keeping a smudge burning, putting in enough hours to qualify her as a deputy fire marshal. Smoke rolled out of the cabin's gable ends like thick fog. At the height of the plume, the bats exited -- but most, or all, returned when the smoke cleared. We discovered which cracks emitted the most smoke and filled the voids with old socks, T-shirts and strips of wood. We swept up the nitrogen-rich guano and buried it in the garden.

Whether our rude form of eviction worked or natural causes reduced the attic population, we don't know. But within two years, the squatters were down to a few. We called an unofficial truce.

On fragile wings

In summer, songbirds of all sorts commonly flit from branch to branch in the trees in front of our cabin. Swallows arc and swoop to their apartments. Occasionally I watch and study the birds with interest and admiration, but generally there is a familiarity to their flight patterns that keeps them on the periphery of my vision.

One afternoon this fall, almost three hours before dark, the flight of one bird caught my attention. Something wasn't right. I switched my focus from mountains and lake to the odd movement in the sky.

It wasn't a bird; it was a bat snatching bugs in full daylight, hours before the deep dusk we normally associate with bat time.

Since that first sighting, we've seen that loner almost every day, and although it continues feeding into failing light, it always starts early. An unsettling fact is that we haven't witnessed this maverick joined by others of its species once the dark settles in. If this is a sign of a local population decline, it's a phenomenon shared with little brown bats in the Lower 48. Populations in both the northeastern U.S. and Canada have recently collapsed due to a fungus called white-nose syndrome. The disease is characterized by a white fungal growth around the muzzles and on the wings of hibernating bats. One consequence of the disease may be that the bats groom themselves more than normal and use up precious reserves of energy. Many starve.

It makes me wonder if something similar is causing a shift in the behavior of this particular bat -- if its increased energy demands are forcing it to hunt for insects at odd hours.

Or perhaps we are witnessing evolution at work. The notion that an adaptation has taken place to allow it to compete more successfully for food gives me hope. Against the blue of the sky, its search for insects is heartening, but I can't help but feel saddened by the loneliness of its flight. Though at times a nuisance, and certainly possessing a face only a mother could love, bats are part of the landscape. Should they completely disappear, I will miss them.

Steve Kahn lives on the north shore of Lake Clark. He is the author of "The Hard Way Home: Alaska Stories of Adventure, Friendship and the Hunt."