Is It a Bird or a Bat?

Is It a Bird or a Bat?
Bird or Bat

October is not a month generally associated with birds. Sure, for serious birders it is a time when the migration picks up, with Columbus Day weekend being prime time for seeing warblers and other small migrants. But usually, when people think of October, they think of Halloween, and when they think of Halloween, the only flying animal that comes to mind is the bat.

It is not always easy to tell if the creature flying around you is a bird or bat. Sure, in a zoo it’s simple. You can see the bats’ little mouse-like faces. Plus, they are usually hanging upside down in a cave lit with black light. But in real life, the differences are not so clear. What you probably see is something flying. It could be a bat--or it could just be a bird. How can you tell the difference when you can’t get a really good look at the unidentified flying object?

1. Way of flying. Bats are manic. They don’t fly from tree to tree like birds do. They don’t land on the ground and pick at the grass for a while. They remain airborne, until they go back to whatever cave they (literally) hang out in.

2. Tail. If the flying animal has a visible tail, it is a bird. Bats don’t have tails. Below their wings, they just have feet. Some birds don’t have much of a tail, either, though. Chimney swifts for example, are more or less tailless. So be careful.

3. Noise. If it’s chirping or singing, it’s most likely a bird. Bats make high-pitched sounds to keep them from crashing into objects, but we humans can’t hear them

4. Nearly being crashed into. If a flying creature almost crashes into you (but they rarely--if ever--really touch you), you can be sure it is “blind as a bat.” Their sonar allows them to get pretty close to the objects are trying to avoid.

5. Time of day. There are still plenty of birds awake at dusk. But if a strange “bird” suddenly appears right when the sun is going down, and you haven’t seen this “bird” earlier in the day, chances are you’ve got a bat sighting.

Of course, if you get a good look at your frequent flier, it’s settled. Birds and bats really don’t look that much alike, with birds, frankly, being much cuter. (I love bats, but you wouldn’t want to be blessed with a bat-like face.)

If you do see a bat, don’t be afraid. Bats are harmless and most will not suck your blood. Their preferred meal is insects. Bats are important to many ecosystems because they help control mosquito populations.

Sadly, bat populations in the Northeastern United States are declining due to a fungus called “white nose disease.” The same disease is present in European bats as well, but for some reason, the effects are much less devastating. There is good news, though; common anti-fungal medicines, like those used against athlete’s foot, have been found to be effective against the disease. But it may be a while before scientists find the best way to administer the medicine, and longer still before the bat populations return to their former level.

So if you’re bird watching and that bird you see is really a bat, be grateful. They are not that easy to come by lately.

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