One type of wildlife that is common and not difficult to find in Brooklyn is that fascinating night flier, the bat. Specifically, the descriptively-named Little Brown Bat and Big Brown Bat species can easily be seen in Brooklyn’s natural spaces such as Prospect Park.
Little Brown Bats, also known as Little Brown Myotis, have a wingspan of 8-9″ and a body length of 3-4½ inches. They are covered, except for their wings and tail membrane, in silky, cinnamon-colored to dark brown fur. The Big Brown Bat is similar-looking, but has a wingspan of 12-13″ and a body length of 4.25-4.75 inches. Bats can live in attics, walls, and basements, hollow trees, caves, storm sewers, and mines. Little Brown Bats typically have a single pup, Big Brown Bats usually have twins. Young bats fly with their parents at first, so in early summer you may see a pair of bats, one smaller and one larger, flying together. Both species hibernate in winter.
The best times to see bats are in the spring or summer, during early dawn or dusk. Look up above a body of water such as a stream or pond, or among trees, and you may see them flying back and forth, dipping and diving for insects. (Bats scoop insects up in their wing or tail membranes and transfer them to their mouth; this is what gives bats such an erratic flight pattern.) Areas where flying insects are most abundant, usually near water, are the best places to spot bats. Brooklyn bat expert Paul Keim suggests that a good time for a bat-finding expedition is just after a storm has passed. Bats will be out and flying about even in light rain.
There are many common misconceptions about bats. For example, their eyesight is actually quite good. The myth of “blind as a bat” arose because the insect-eating species that use echolocation have small eyes. The fruit-eating bats are also capable of echolocation but don’t use it to locate food. They use their eyesight and as a result, have larger eyes. The myth that bats will get caught in a person’s hair is also untrue. It probably originated from bats’ habit of swooping very low and close to catch biting insects hovering around people’s heads.
In fact, bats are essential to human well-being. Among other things, a bat must eat its own weight in insects–thousands of them–every night, even more when it is nursing its young. Most of the insects they eat are important agricultural pests and others that annoy humans such as potentially disease-carrying mosquitos. Without bats, it would be necessary to use millions of dollars more in pesticides to protect crops and prevent the spread of disease. There are also bats that live on nectar, like butterflies. One of these, the long-nosed bat, is the only pollinator of the agave plant, so without bats, there would be no margaritas or agave syrup.
Unfortunately, bats in the Eastern part of the United States (from New Hampshire to Tennessee) are seriously threatened by a mysterious fungal disease known as White-Nose Syndrome. It causes bats to lose weight and behave erratically, and is estimated to have killed over a million bats since its discovery in January, 2007. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working to understand and stop this deadly fungus.
On several summer Thursday evenings a Twilight Tour is offered at the Audubon Center in Prospect Park. It includes not only bat-watching, but a romantic boat ride and wine and cheese for $30 a person.