53. Tails & Wings IV: “You Alone…will be Able to Fly.”

Whoever builds a two-story dwelling on a Floyd County ridge can expect to shelter mammals from the order Chiroptera, Greek for “hand-wing.”

Someone explained to us that bats need a high place from which to take off so they can fall a bit while getting enough lift. Over our bedroom came a scuffling that unnerved us, as did the one-at-a-time forays at dusk. We felt like guests in a Bat & Breakfast. So even though the animals consume insect pests—and indeed, we had never seen a mosquito–we hired exterminators to ameliorate the situation. Workers attached a slack net to a crevice under a window so that when a bat crawled down, it couldn’t return—a variation on the proverbial umbrella in that it can’t go up the chimney up. The exterminators also tested the bat-bugs that lay near our bathroom window, mainly dead but a few dying. This species ignores people but plagues bats–one of nature’s ironies, insects preying on insect-gobblers.

But the squatters found new crevices and resumed their nightly hunt. We couldn’t want to seal off the house in the daytime—like the fatal bat cave in Tom Sawyer. “Next year,” we vowed, and continued to sweep little beads of guano from the deck. Our neighbors gave us a bat house, which was set on a high pole by our right-hand women, Faith King and Kathleen Becker, of Faith in Construction. It was ignored, however, despite the bat lure ordered over the Net and smeared on via the end of a pole held by a bald ladder-balancer.

The next spring the two fixit-women trucked ladders and tools up Annie Lane, intending to “batten down.” Declared Faith: “The house was built like a sponge, with all these little pores that were happy bat havens.” She and Kathleen pulled all the wooden trim, which had given each window or door 5 ½ inches of space. They sawed a kerf 1 ½ deep into each log, then inserted a piece of metal. “It’s the little curvy part that they really like”–i.e., where the convex logs taper together to form a shallow place. “Leaves a little tunnel for them.” While removing a fake roof-vent, tribute to carpenters in a hurry, they came upon a bat: “Kathleen screamed like a little girl.” But the most unpleasant phase was taking off the old boards and Kathleen was accumulating guano in her hair. On another visit they dismantled the top ridge and replaced it with a Z-bar.

The next year we reached an apparent equilibrium with all things bright and beautiful. But one evening in July I climbed the basement stairs, opened the door, and felt accosted by a black circling. Wings! Around and around the living room they swooped. I could feel the air as one of them neared me, bodies doubled by shadows. I had to retreat and warn Marge about the invasion. We tried to limit fear with logic: Remember, they don’t bite. But how did they get in and how would they get out?

Marge ran upstairs and slammed the doors to the other rooms and to our bedroom on the top floor. I hastened to the computer and learned that we could encourage bats to leave by opening external doors and turning on outside lights. After we did so, Marge handed me an extendable mop, which I shook and swung from the balcony over the living room as a means of persuading the spooky things to descend from the cathedral ceiling. Most of them did, but to dislodge one on the frame of a high triangular window I had to set a step-stool on the ground floor, reach up with the mop, and pound the wooden frame.

Scrutinizing the room again, I saw no means of entry, no crevice or hole. Never had the bats made any incursion other than into the eaves and around the outside of windows. We did remember seeing them, however, as they flitted around the open top of the flue. Now looking at the wood-stove itself, I noticed that the brass-framed door was slightly ajar. “Why?” wondered Marge–a question that triggered the memory of our little grandson Julien as he curiously worked the brass handle up and down. We surmised that this friendly jailer had let the creatures make their way down the pipe into the stove and then to temporary freedom.

Next day another swooping, this one a lone invader. Our theory disproved about the stove-as-only-portal, confusion returned with apprehension. Then the bat disappeared. Mop in hand, I eyeballed other rooms and spotted a small bulk hanging from the top of a curtain and scratching to keep its hold. I looked in the kitchen for something to cover it with and found a plastic, cake-pan shaped cover for microwave dishes. By the time I got back, the animal was sitting on a fancy pillow, which Bang! became the bottom half of a trap. Carrying both outside, I let the disoriented bat fly off after it scritched the pillow again to keep its purchase. The creature had probably spent the night in the house, so we reinstated the stove-theory.

Another day, another digit-waving mammal. I couldn’t trap it despite an awkward effort of mop, microwave, and loud oath as my prey made a nasty, thin, threatening noise. It flew downstairs and sat near the front door, probably tired and hungry. By the time I arrived with my plastic gotcha, it had escaped via the open door of the screened porch. Sometime during this siege-from-within, Marge shut the bedroom door, relieved, turned around, and stared into hanging eyes right above the door. “AACK!” So we had been harboring more escapees from the iron Regency stove. 

Faith and Kathleen drove over to case out the problem from vantage point of the deck. With the help of binoculars they saw a bat that was frantically trying to free its leg, caught between sheet metal plates at the apex of the roof, by gnawing it off. Mortality continued more speedily when we built a one-newspaper-page fire to encourage the bats to hustle out of the flue-top. I didn’t realize that bats were so far down in the pipe, and a couple of them dropped onto the firebrick and flailed around. Too late to apologize as the body of one lay there like a giant grasshopper.

This whole troubling experience of mammals swooping, perching, and falling distorted our visual perceptions:

  • When a hawk flew past the triangular window, I shrank like a mouse.
  • From the bedroom a slight clanking downstairs–“They’re coming through the pipe!” But no, a pan-lid had slipped on a shelf.
  • When I shut the door of a downstairs bedroom to make another inspection, I stopped breathing until an ebony shape hanging on the door resolved into an oversize metal dragonfly.
  • When Marge thought she was witnessing the shape and shadow of another bat, she realized that it was an illusion–until it wasn’t. For yet another guest had overstayed by hanging in corner.
  • When I surveyed the pine ceiling and beams, every knothole looked a bit sinister.
  • When I bumped into our front-door decoration and knocked it to the floor–a metal salamander or whatever, souvenir of Utah–I was unenthusiastic about re-hanging another creature on our house.
  • When I removed the top of the coffee grinder, the three plastic flanges that can be rotated to scrape out the residue resembled spindly legs.
  • When Marge and I unfolded our grandson’s Pack & Play for a visit, I almost jumped back at its sets of articulating wings.
  • Lying in bed nearsighted, I blinked at a dark round shape over the door, which I then recognized chain-pull for the light and fan that actually hung down two yards this side of the door.
  • That dark form lying on the side of a stair-tread! Oh, the cover of a cell phone.

Early the next summer we heard and saw a few bats, unsure if the small number reflected the tightened house or, over the winter, a bat-cave that offered inadequate protection from “white nose syndrome.” This fungus kills hibernating bats by infecting their skin. One rainy night, however, there was a very lively commotion in the ridge cap. Had a contingent pulled in, maybe a second one that fought it out with an earlier one? Had a predator made its way through the defenseless crowd? Thump, scratch, flutter right over our heads. The noise upset us even more because we had just returned from seeing House of Good and Evil–a movie shot in the former Cannady School. Both of us, keyed up and a bit despondent because we couldn’t seal up the space for reasons legal and ethical, spopped a sleeping pill. Next night, silence.

Marjory did see a couple of bats emerge from a crack here and there where metal attached to metal or wood. Now a few dark shapes appeared, one on the porch screen, a couple on the stone facing and on the support beams that held the deck over the carport. One seemed to die on the Trex but the next day found a better place to hang out. Each unsheltered animal resembled a cooked chicken-back with rubber-band appendages. A close examination, however, revealed a slight inhaling and exhaling.

One clung face downward to the inside of the porch screen. Marjory and I figured out a way to transport it, same as I had used with a wasp or two: I clamped a transparent plastic bowl over it and slowly ran a file-folder under it. The animal squeaked in the highest pitch emitted by the hearing-test machine, and it opened its tiny mouth to bite. Its legs scrambled either to dodge the bowl or extricate them from the screen. Holding the trap closed, I opened it over the deck and tossed the bat up in the air; as it plummeted, its wings opened and (as if in an animated cartoon) a leg stuck out, grabbed a blade of yard-high grass, and bowed it down with the body’s weight. The file folder bore widdle and became recycled.

Distorted perceptions continued. One morning while making waffles I checked their progress by opening the iron: on the bottom lay three brown, oblong shapes, but onto the vertical top clung another as if by tiny grabbers. On a hike I reached a fence and saw a bat hanging from its wire—no, a gray-green leaf.

On a trip to Myrtle Beach, we visited Alligator Adventure, where we came upon a dark-lit exhibit of large exotic bats that circle-flapped near a window that could not be thick enough. And yet I felt sympathy for the imprisoned creatures—catchers caught—and knew that if a protester were to break the window, I would hear or see nothing.

At the cabin, a few bats continued to lose the contest for shelter. One hung its mouse-like head down toward the concrete from a support-beam under the deck. Were its lifeless nails still clinging to the rough wood out of habit? It looked like a skin hung up after being tanned. “No, you can see it breathe!” Again the almost invisible quick inhales and exhales as it slept.

Yet ours was the House of Life and Death. Here is an account written by Kaisa, a nine-year-old visitor:

I thought the bat was a frog. At first but then I touched it with my toe. And it spread out it’s wings. And I went yelling mom mom it’s a bat. The bat started to crawl away and I yelled hurry up. And the bat was halfway to his spot and mom came out And Almost steped on it. We got one picture. But it was’nt a goood one. And we looked under his hiding place and found a nother bat and then we went inside and left them alone. The next day one bat was gone but the other one was still there we got some good pictures. We watched it for a little while, and we left him alone the rest of the day. The next day he was still there he wasn’t looking too good we’d mess around with him a little we had to throw it off the Deck so he spent a spent a day on the carport and then he Died so uncle randy took a shovel and threw him out.

Once I spotted a dead bat shaped like a piece of excrement on the carport, then retrieved my flat shovel and scraped it up, only to see it wave and expand grotesquely on the blade. I looked for something tall enough to give it a flying-off point and tossed it atop the weeping cherry, a stem or leaf of which a leg reached out and grabbed. Next morning I was heartened to see it gone until I looked beneath the canopy to the ground.

That same July a couple more explorers made their way down the flue of the wood-stove. After a while the scritching ceased. I opened the brass-trimmed door of the tomb to reveal one animal still upright as if it had been pressed against the door as it hung by one foot in front. Another hung farther back, which I tried to brush into the dust but knocked into last season’s ashes and had to pull out between thumb and finger. “Look at its elbow,” said daughter Katie; “it makes up part of the wing.” The pieces of 3” x 3” jerky, stiff and a somewhat odorous, was tossed off the dustpan into the woods under the high house that might have saved their lives.

Shortly after sunset as we sat on the deck, we could watch one creature after another crawl along the gutter on its belly in jerks–like a jet with flat tires on an aircraft carrier–reach the corner, pause as if surveying the aerosphere, push off, sink, and recover by flapping their webbed digits. Although we wanted to protect the species, we scheduled another round of patching the next winter. We actually welcomed a few bats yet had filled our quota.

Your author’s determined search for the bald truth led him at last to Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight. Into the story was woven a Native American legend, as paraphrased by the comic book:

In early days of the world, Raven came down with the ghost sickness. Bat, a scrawny, clawed rodent, didn’t want to see his friend die. Raven said he must cause a strong wind to blow it away. So Bat labored to stretch out his fingers and then, when they were as broad as the widest leaves, to stretch a frame over them. The skin between his fingers also stretched. When he fanned them over Raven, a strong wind blew away the sickness. “As a reward,” declared Raven, “I will let you keep the form you have taken.You alone, of all the animals, will be able to fly.” 1

He, land they, did flap off the house and disappear when cold weather arrived. Ahh, Hand-wing! Be a friend to yourself! Blow away your own fungus! And throw off your need to return to someone else’s castle! Repair to your own cozy cottage-upon-a post, safe from the upward winding vine of Snake.

1 Collectors’ Special No. 1. Shaman. O’Neil, Hannigan, Beatty. DC Comics, 1989, pp. 9-10. Permission sought without reply.