Category Archives: Wild Garden Helpers

Squirrels: Nature’s Real Gardeners

Image of Eastern gray squirrel in Hyde Park by Monkeywing
Above: An Eastern gray squirrel buries a cache – or perhaps merely pretends to do so in a clever attempt to foil would-be nut robbers – in London’s Hyde Park. Transported to places well outside their range a century ago, the animals have adapted well to their adopted homelands. (Photo by Monkeywing) Top, featured image: A red squirrel in Bas-Saint-Laurent, Quebec, enjoys a maple seed. (Photo by Gilles Gonthier)

By Nancy Lawson

In 1749, Pennsylvania put a bounty on Eastern gray squirrels—threepence per scalp. Their crime? Eating too much corn. It wasn’t the first time humans waged war on the bushy-tailed rodents: Massachusetts had already offered fourpence.

A century later, cities along the Eastern seaboard began releasing gray squirrels into urban centers for the enjoyment of local residents, even supplying nest boxes and community-stocked feeders. Treated more like outdoor pets than wild animals, squirrels were also transported far from their native stomping grounds to cities like Seattle and London, where Eastern grays are now blamed for marginalizing other species.

Squirrels are caught between unbridled admiration and relentless persecution, reflecting our contradictory relationships with animals.

A microcosm of our contradictory relationships with animals, human-squirrel interactions have long been shortsighted. Caught between unbridled admiration by those who delight in their acrobatic ways and relentless persecution by others intent on “doing battle” with them, common tree squirrel species are sometimes subjected to draconian treatment. Though the scene of perceived seed-stealing crimes is more likely to be a birdfeeder these days than an agricultural field, the measures are still drastic; one of my friend’s relatives shoots squirrels to guard the feast he’s laid out for songbirds.

Humans can be cruel and irrational, especially when the motivation is revenge. John Griffin, director of urban wildlife solutions at the Humane Society of the U.S., has seen his share of squirrels left to die after homeowners set traps and never looked back. “There’s a real disconnection from nature that exacerbates the problem,” says Griffin, an expert in humanely evicting animals from attics, chimneys and other structures. “If you have an animal who’s a nuisance or in your house, typically it’s framed as, ‘This animal is targeting me in some way, I’ve got to solve it; I’ve got to solve it on an emergency basis’—without really understanding what’s going on.”

Making a House a Home
Image of baby squirrel in hand
Humane wildlife companies make sure to keep squirrel families together when performing evictions. Mothers bring babies to alternate den sites, which they keep on reserve in the landscape in case anything happens to the original nest. (Photo by Humane Wildlife Services)

If they can intercede before clients act on those instincts, humane wildlife companies explain that a squirrel in the attic is likely a mother seeking a safe space to raise her young. They determine where the animals entered. They remove babies, place them in a box nearby, install a one-way door and wait for the mother to move her family. Once everyone’s out, humane services seal entry points to prevent recurrence. When the call for help comes too late, they are sometimes left to pick up the pieces of botched jobs: In one case, Griffin arrived to find an illegal body-crushing trap clamped down on a squirrel who just happened to be walking by. Beyond the obvious cruelty, such approaches don’t solve the problem, targeting random animals while the squirrel family in question is still cozily ensconced in an attic.

Image of squirrels scaling a wall to get the attic
Squirrels are acrobats, able to scale walls like mini Spidermen to access nesting sites in attics. (Photo by Humane Wildlife Services)

Failure to consider animal behavior or repair structural damage creates open invitations for wildlife. Squirrels’ ingenuity knows few boundaries, and their maternal instincts are so strong they’ve been known to fight off dogs and, on rare occasions, chew through metal to get to their young. They can scale walls and squeeze through 2-inch holes. “There’s no difference to a squirrel in terms of what’s natural and what’s human-built,” says Griffin. “They’re like a house can opener.”

Stocking the Pantry
Image of Eastern gray squirrel by Joseph Palatinus
An Eastern gray squirrel works hard for his food in a suburban Chicago yard. Eastern grays can even dig through snow to find their buried treasures. Late winter can be a particularly difficult time for squirrels because food resources are scarce – another reason to tolerate and even welcome their presence at your bird feeders. (Photo by Joseph Palatinus)

Anyone dismayed by squirrelly bird feeder antics will recognize that description. But understanding more about what Wilkes University professor Michael Steele has called their “high-maintenance lifestyle” may garner sympathies of even the most frustrated squirrel detractor.

Image of Eastern fox squirrel with acorn
An Eastern fox squirrel works on an acorn in a Texas yard. Researchers have documented Eastern gray squirrels, Eastern fox squirrels, and Mexican fox squirrels excising embryos from white acorns before burying them–a food preservation method that keeps their winter supplies intact. (Photo by Ken Slade)

Unlike other squirrel species, tree squirrels don’t hibernate and must regulate food supplies all year. Research by Steele and others has documented their ability to decide which seeds are better eaten immediately and which ones can be stored. Some species can even keep fast-germinating white oak acorns from sprouting by excising embryos before burying the seeds. They remember cache sites, monitoring and relocating food throughout the season.

Image of squirrel on roof
A red squirrel in Camrose, Alberta, where the species can find plenty of its main food supply: conifer cones. Red squirrels are also excellent food preservationists, placing mushrooms on tree branches before storing them; the subsequent drying process kills insect larvae and nematodes that could otherwise destroy winter caches.  (Photo by Marilylle Soveran)

“One of the big misconceptions is that their behavior just seems so random, that they’re just out there popping around,” says Steele. “And the thing [people] have to realize is that just about every minute of every day is a careful behavioral decision that they’re making in order to survive.”

Eastern gray squirrels even engage in “deceptive caching,” digging a hole and pretending to bury a seed they keep in their mouths. “That actually meets the criteria of tactical deception,” says Steele, “which was generally only thought to occur in primates.”

While creating their food caches, squirrels plant trees that feed hundreds of species. Many of those species in turn sustain others; oak trees alone support more caterpillars, the mainstay of most terrestrial baby birds’ diets, than anything else in the forest. “We suggest that the importance of tree squirrels in some biomes or ecosystems may be significant enough to elevate them to the status of keystone species,” write Steele and co-author John Koprowski in their book, North American Tree Squirrels.

The Gifts They Bring
Image of squirrel with walnut
An Eastern gray squirrel in Massachusetts finds a prized walnut. As a “scatter hoarding” species, Eastern grays bury nuts far enough away from parent trees that some will invariably sprout, eventually providing even more food and cover for wildlife.  (Photo by Lorianne DiSabato)

Our backyard squirrels, then, are nature’s ultimate gardeners, returning to earth the seeds of wildlife-sustaining plants that we humans cut down. How ironic is it that animals who help birds far more than any birdfeeder could are the object of such angst among birdwatchers and gardeners? How much more fulfilling would our relationship with other species be if we remembered they all have a place in the landscape?

How ironic is it that animals who help birds far more than any birdfeeder could are the object of such angst among birdwatchers and gardeners?

Even when growing food, we don’t have to issue a bounty on squirrel heads to protect our gardens. Rock squirrels and tree squirrels have made themselves at home on Tammi Hartung’s Desert Canyon Farm in Colorado, eating birdseed and chewing through irrigation system emitters. Rather than chastise the squirrels, Hartung lets them join the feast and plants hedgerows rich in food for wildlife. Realizing the squirrels are thirsty, she places saucers of fresh water near drip lines. A hot pepper-petroleum jelly mixture slathered around emitters offers extra insurance.

Her methods are successful because she avoids jumping to conclusions, says Hartung, the author of The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener. “Just sit for a little while and pay attention to what’s actually going on,” she advises. “Then you can figure out a better way to handle it.”

Through closer observation on my own land, I’ve learned that squirrels and other animals bring more gifts than they take away. We just have to be willing to accept them. Last spring, a friend suggested I remove the oaks, hickories and walnuts popping up in my grass and wildflower areas. Years ago, I probably would have. But now I’ve ceded some landscaping work to nature’s real gardeners, who, if only we’d let them, could eventually plant enough seeds, berries and nuts to feed us all.

Protecting Your Own Nest

Image of squirrel in tree
(Photo by Marilylle Soveran)

It’s easier to prevent squirrel entry than to perform evictions. Limit roof damage by keeping branches at least 6 feet away, recommends HSUS urban wildlife solutions director John Griffin. Cover attic side vents and seal holes at roofline intersections. Just be sure to check for animals first; if a family is inside, wait for them to leave or consult with a humane wildlife company. Avoid those that claim to humanely relocate squirrels, a method that often separates families and leaves dependent young behind. Adults also suffer a cruel fate: relocation even a short distance away is often deadly for squirrels and other animals, who may have more trouble competing for resources with their own kind and avoiding predation from others in unfamiliar territories. Get more tips on coexisting with squirrels »

This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared in the November-December 2015 issue of All Animals magazine.

For More Information

A journey through the science of squirrel behavior: Much of what we know about gray and fox squirrels comes from the research of Michael Steele and John Koprowski, who tell the story of their studies in the engaging book, North American Tree SquirrelsSince its 2001 publication, Steele has continued to make groundbreaking discoveries about squirrels and their role in oak seed dispersal, the subject of a new book in progress with the help of a grant from the National Science Foundation.

A squirrelly encyclopedia: Squirrels: The Animal Answer Guide, by Richard Thorington Jr. and Katie Ferrell, covers everything from where squirrels sleep to how they find the food they’ve buried.

Essay on the history of the Eastern gray squirrel: See The Urbanization of the Eastern Gray Squirrel in the Journal of American History for a fascinating and sometimes disturbing account of squirrel-human relationships.

Skunks: Better Than Pesticides

Image of baby skunks
No cause for alarm: These skunks are too busy foraging for tasty insects to bother with us. (Photo by Marilylle Soveran)

By Nancy Lawson

It was a rude awakening: Just as my thoughts drifted into a pre-sleep jumble, a skunk pounced onto my nighttime reading. Not just any skunk, but a giant one flashing her black-and-white tail in a series of pungent leaps. Back and forth she went, bed to floor to bed, before my eyes caught up with my nose and saw the stinky beastie for who she really was: a wiry mutt reveling in new perfume.

A herding breed mix who would leap three feet upon our arrival home and nip at our ankles as we departed, Mattie was happiest when rolling in deer poop, especially after baths. So it was hardly a surprise that a shower of eau de skunk had inspired her to charge past my husband, who’d tried to contain her, and upstairs to share the news. “Yay! I got sprayed!” she seemed to say. “Let’s go outside and do it again!”

My interpretation wasn’t far off the mark. “Dogs are kind of nuts sometimes,” says Jerry Dragoo, a skunk expert and the man behind a myth-busting website called the Dragoo Institute for the Betterment of Skunks and Skunk Reputations. “Some dogs—they get sprayed, and they will never get sprayed again. Others get sprayed and they just relish it, and they will seek out every skunk that they find just to get sprayed again.”

While wild animals understand the language of threatened skunks—raised tail, lowered front end, feet stamping—dogs can be more obtuse. “They have zero idea of how to react to the warning signs,” says HSUS director of urban wildlife programs John Griffin.

Lost in Translation

Skunks, in turn, are terrified by excitable creatures like Mattie, who had started the mischief by sniffing under my potting bench. Skunks are so nearsighted that “they tend to see the world in terms of moving blobs,” says wildlife ecologist Laura Simon, whose affection for the animals began at age 11, when she went head-first into a sewer to rescue one. Slow-moving blobs are fine, she says, but fast-moving ones that won’t stop? They’ll get what’s coming to them.

The interspecies miscommunication doesn’t end there. Humans exacerbate matters by letting dogs roam during wildlife foraging hours and by perceiving skunks as “walking time bombs,” says Griffin. “People don’t understand the myopia. A skunk might be waddling right to them, and they think, ‘The skunk’s coming after me.’ But a skunk just sees a blurry object; it doesn’t know what’s going on.” Even the normally sympathetic Charles Darwin called skunks “odious animals,” indignantly describing the scent emitted when dogs attack.

All these misread cues among species add up to more than smelly spritzes; for skunks, they’re often a death sentence. Guilty before proven innocent, skunks are still among the most commonly trapped animals, targeted by homeowners who believe they’re after gardens and pets or, inexplicably, born with rabies.

Many nuisance wildlife and pest control companies are happy to oblige unfounded fears, perhaps aiming to wipe out the competition. “Skunks are a great form of natural pest control,” says Simon, dubbed “skunk adviser to the stars” after counseling Ellen DeGeneres about their grub-digging in her lawn. “And they also will eat mice and baby rats, and just their presence deters a lot of rodents.”

Image of USDA bulletinSkunks would rather dine on insects eating plants than on the plants themselves, says Dragoo: “If a skunk has a choice between a tomato and a tomato worm, it’ll go after the tomato worm.” Their taste for grasshoppers and beetle larvae earned praise in a 1914 U.S. Department of Agriculture bulletin, and their culinary preferences even inspired New York hops growers to lobby for their protection. But they still faced a tough crowd: “Scientific observers since the days of Audubon have nearly all testified to the usefulness of these animals,” the USDA noted, “but popular prejudices are hard to overcome.”

A century later, insecticides further obscure skunks’ ecological role. Chemical manufacturers admonish consumers that grubs invite skunks and birds to lawns, as if nature’s balancing acts were negative phenomena to be vanquished.

Not an Automatic Weapon
Image of baby skunks
Skunks are gentle creatures with good noses but poor eyesight; nearsightedness sometimes gives a mistaken impression of aggression. (Photo by Marilylle Soveran)

For their part, skunks would be just as happy not to make our acquaintance. Content to keep their noses to the ground, these gentle animals aren’t looking for a fight and “don’t just spray willy-nilly,” says Simon. “They do little charges at you, and they try their very best to get a potential predator to go away.” During decades of rehabilitating orphaned and injured skunks, Simon watched babies as small as 3 inches practice feet-stamping maneuvers, eyeballing their targets while curling into a U shape to display their “business ends,” she says. “They’ll charge each other, and then they’ll slam on the brakes and topple over because they’re not that coordinated.”

At the first sign of trouble—perhaps a loud noise from behind—skunks would prefer to run if there’s an escape route, says Dragoo, also a longtime rehabilitator. Initial reactions are hard-wired, but skunks make mental calculations about what comes next. If Dragoo accidentally drops a pan in front of a skunk, her defensive instincts kick in, but she stands down upon finding no threats: “If they don’t fear for their life, they’re not going to spray.”

Without dogs, most of us wouldn’t even be aware of these unassuming animals. “A lot of people say, ‘I’ve got a skunk in my backyard: What do I do?’ And my advice is to get a lawn chair, pour a beer, put up your feet up and watch it because it’s very entertaining,” says Dragoo.

If you or your dog do get sprayed, use this neutralizer: a quart of 3-percent hydrogen peroxide, 1/4 cup of baking soda and 1 teaspoon of liquid dishwashing soap. It works even on canine rascals, as I can attest.

Danger-Free Zone

Human behaviors, including speeding, are top causes of skunk mortality. Besides slowing down, we can eliminate other hazards to protect these docile creatures.

Remove bait.
Image of skunk trapped in can
Human trash, especially containers with narrow openings, can trap and even suffocate skunks. (Photo by Heather Fone/The HSUS)

When a couple brought a panicked skunk stuck in a jar to an HSUS wildlife rehabilitation center, staff anesthetized him, removed the jar, treated his abrasion and released him. He was lucky, unlike those never found, says Deborah Millman, who directed the center at the time. “It’s sad when you think about what they must go through.” Yoplait yogurt containers are the biggest offenders, says Simon, because of the narrow openings’ angled rims. Cut up the cups, secure trash cans and remove garbage and pet kibble to prevent mishaps.

Close death traps.

Add covers to window wells. Rescue already fallen skunks by lowering a prostrate kitchen garbage can with cheese into the well. Skunks find cheese so delectable that “a bomb can go off and that skunk is not going to react,” says Simon. Once the skunk walks in, gently lift the can, place it on the ground, and wait for the skunk to leave. Don’t worry about spraying; skunks don’t spray what they can’t see.

Leash pets.
Image of skunk babies at FFAWC
This baby was one of five orphaned after their mom was killed by a dog. (Photo by Ali Crumpacker/The HSUS)

Recently The HSUS’s Fund for Animals Wildlife Center in California took in five skunk babies after a dog killed their mother. Prevent unnecessary orphaning by monitoring pets, especially at dawn and dusk.

Rescind invitations.

Use welded wire to seal holes in concrete slabs or other openings. But check first for tenants by plugging entryways with soil or leaves; skunks, if present, will dismantle it overnight. Wait until families leave, or contact a humane service that places babies in a reunion box outside the structure, installs a one-way door, and waits for the mother to exit and carry her dependent young to an alternate den site.

Make the lawn be gone.

Turf-digging is seasonally restricted to when soil is wet and beetle larvae are closer to the surface, says Simon. Sprinkle cayenne pepper as a deterrent, or—better yet—replace grass with diverse native plantings. As they put down layers of interweaving roots, they won’t mind a little digging and will also provide far more habitat for many more of our wild friends.

A version of this article originally appeared in All Animals magazine. Find additional advice for humane conflict prevention and resolution on the HSUS “What to Do About Skunks” page.

*Featured image: A rehabilitated skunk is released back into the wild. (Photo by The HSUS) 

 

How to Really Save the Bees

agapostemon-virescens-in-ground-nest-3
A metallic green bee, identified by researcher Christy Stewart as Agapostemon virescens, emerges from a ground nest in her Wisconsin backyard. Most of North America’s 4,000 or so native bee species raise their young underground. Others are largely cavity-nesters, laying eggs in wood, twigs, and other materials. (Photo above by Christy Stewart. Featured image, top, by Megan E. Leach)

In a few short months, the sweet scent of thawing soil will have me searching under trees, along streams and in gardens for new life peeking into the frosty air. During the dark days of winter, it’s hard to imagine anyone more excited about spring’s brave first blooms.

But just below ground, creatures on a more important mission than mine will be getting ready to greet the plants, too. Mother bumblebees will emerge from leaves to start new colonies, timing their arrival for the flowering of Dutchman’s breeches and Virginia bluebells. Ground-nesting bees will dig through blankets of dirt to indulge refined tastes: Andrena erigeniae will turn to her exclusive culinary supplier, spring beauty flowers, to make pollen cakes for her babies; Habropoda labiorosa will get her groceries from blueberries, redbud trees, oaks and Carolina jessamine. Cavity-nesting bees—who’ve waited out the cold in logs and twigs—will also join the party.

As we awaken from our own kind of hibernation, many of us will walk by these animals without even noticing them. Though everywhere in the landscape, they occupy little space in the cultural mindset, much to the chagrin of scientists working to save them. If he had to pick one fact more people should know about North America’s 4,000 wild bee species, says conservation biologist Rich Hatfield of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, it would be this: “That they exist.”

Image of Andrena erigeniae on spring beauty
Andrena erigeniae, a kind of mining bee, is a pollen specialist on the flowers of spring beauties (Claytonia virginica). (Photo by MaLisa Spring)
Image of bee nests by MaLisa Spring
Think these are anthills? Think again. They are the nests of native mother bees. (Photo by MaLisa Spring)
Image of bee emerging from ground nest
Unmulched areas near plants can provide ideal nesting habitat for many ground-nesting bees. (Photo by MaLisa Spring)

Their solitary nature, hidden nests and often diminutive sizes have made most bees historically difficult to observe, even for scientists. “Go back 20 years,” says biologist Olivia Messinger Carril, coauthor of The Bees in Your Backyard, “and the number of people that studied bees could be counted on your hands and your feet, total.” The obscurity of native pollinators also stems from a disproportionate focus on a single species imported from Europe 400 years ago. “Most people, when they think about bees, they have an image that pops into their head, and that’s the honeybee,” says Hatfield.

Image of honeybee on frost aster
Honeybees are important pollinators and deserve our help, but knowledge of their plight has tended to obscure the needs of the many other bees who don’t live in hives. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Critical to current agricultural systems that manage hives for food crops, the domesticated honeybee dominates headlines as beekeepers struggle to stop mass die-offs blamed on disease, mites, habitat loss and pesticides. But just as hard at work in our forests, fields and gardens are mason bees, mining bees, bumblebees and others whose services have produced fruits and seeds for countless animals—including people—for millennia. They, too, are at risk, dependent on ever-shrinking habitat to accommodate lifestyles that bear little resemblance to those of their captive-raised cousins.

Instead of adding hives, which may further increase competition for floral resources and transmit disease, add habitat.

The needs of wild bees are so different that, as some experts say, raising honeybees to save pollinators is like raising chickens to help birds. Though many homeowners respond to “save a bee” campaigns by purchasing hives, the practice is unlikely to improve honeybee health and may harm other bees by increasing competition for floral resources and exacerbating the risk of disease transmission. In the turf-dominated landscapes of suburbia, native bees need all the flowers they can find.

To benefit these special creatures as well as many other animals,  take these steps to enhance your backyard habitat:

Plant diverse native species and other bee favorites.

While some bees have long tongues to access tubular flowers, those with shorter tongues tend to visit shallower blooms. Many are dietary generalists, but pollen specialists rely on certain species. A succession of native blooms ensures there’s something for everyone. In my mid-Atlantic yard, that means leaving violets for their biggest fan, a mining bee known as Andrena violae, or evening primroses for the Lasioglossum oenotherae, a sweat bee they host. In the Southwest, it means nurturing cacti for Diadasia bees partial to their pollen. Across the continent, asters, goldenrods and sunflowers provide seasonal nourishment in autumn as other flowers wane. Bee experts also recommend supplementing native blooms with herbs and cottage-garden annuals attractive to bees such as hollyhocks, lavender, and zinnias.

Image of squash bees by Megan Leach
Squash bees, or bees in the Peponapis genus, depend on squash flowers and can pollinate them more effectively than honeybees. (Photo by Megan E. Leach)
Image of Melissodes agilis on sunflower
Melissodes agilis visits the Utah backyard of USDA scientist Jim Cane. The species specializes on pollen of plants in the aster family, including sunflowers, where gardeners are most likely to see them. (Photo by Jim Cane)

Set up maternity wards for mother bees.

Mother bees ask for little: Most nest alone in sunny dirt patches left unmulched. Some lay eggs in stalks of goldenrod, elderberry and other plants left standing, including dead or dying trees. Bumblebees, a more social species, colonize grassy tussocks, rodent burrows and other unmowed areas, where fallen leaves also shelter overwintering queens. The less you indulge your urge to “clean up” in the garden, the more you’ll help these hard-working creatures. Let fallen leaves lie, and resist the temptation to add mulch to exposed earth. Leave last season’s leftover stalks wherever you can; if you need to prune, give bee larvae a chance by propping the twigs against a tree or scattering long pieces between plants in your garden.

Lay down your weapons.
leafcutter-grapevine-in-nancy-garden
The telltale signs of mother leafcutter bees building their nests appeared on my wild grapevine leaves in Maryland  last summer. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Some pesticides contaminate pollen and nectar, and others kill on contact. Before grabbing spray bottles, observe what’s really happening. Holes in roses may be the handiwork of leafcutter bees lining nests with petals and foliage. Instead of treating such phenomena as aggressive acts, be proud that you’re helping generations of bees—and many other animals depending on the incalculable services these unsung heroes provide.

Don’t blink or you’ll miss it! Check out this video of a bee returning to her underground nest by Dr. Jim Cane of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Logan, Utah:

For further information

Specialist bees: About a third of the approximately 450 bee species native to the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern U.S. are pollen specialists, relying on blooms of plants of a certain genus or even single species. In other regions like the Southwest, that ratio could be even higher. Read more here.

Citizen science: Of the thousands of native bee species in North America, only 46 are bumblebees. But these social creatures are some of our best pollinators. At least a third are thought to be in decline, however, and one hasn’t been seen since 2006. Help these animals and the scientists who study them by joining Bumble Bee Watch, a citizen science program that teaches you how to identify bees as you document sightings in your own backyard and community.

Guidelines for gardeners: One of the photographic contributors to this article, entomologist Jim Cane, has produced helpful guidelines for those interested in creating nesting and flowering habitat. Though some of the advice is specific to Utah, much of it is universal. See Gardening and Landscaping Practices for Nesting Bees and Gardening for Native Bees in Utah and Beyond.

Field guide: With the help of The Bees in Your Backyard and its authors, I’ve already learned to identify bees so tiny they used to look more like flies or wasps to me. Mixed with detailed descriptions of anatomy and lifestyles are fascinating facts about bee behavior and natural histories.

Mini field guide: If Bee Basics: An Introduction to Our Native Bees doesn’t make you fall in love with native bees, nothing will. This lavishly illustrated guide from the USDA Forest Service and Pollinator Partnership provides a gorgeous, empathetic look at everything you never knew about native bees and their lifestyles.

Planting guides: Created with more than bees in mind, these region-specific Selecting Plants for Pollinators guides from the Pollinator Partnership briefly explain why different kinds of blooms attract different species. PDFs tailored to 24 regions in the U.S. and Canada help gardeners learn how to plant for bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, hummingbirds and bats.

For more tips on working with nature in your garden, check out my new book, The HumImage of Humane Gardener book coverane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Wildlife Habitat.

A shorter version of this article originally appeared in my Humane Backyard column in the January/February 2017 edition of All Animals magazine. A special thanks to MaLisa Spring, Megan E. Leach, Christy Stewart and Jim Cane for generously sharing their spectacular photos and video.

 

Spirit of the Evening Sky

Image of spectacled flying fox
Australia’s spectacled flying fox is one of about 1,300 bat species worldwide. (Photo by Jurgen Otto/Creative Commons)

They inhabit the ruins of a 14th-century empire in Africa, cling to 800-year-old cliff-side dwellings in Arizona, forage in old Indian temples and European churches, and occupy the decidedly less grand crawl spaces of our modern homes.

As the only true flying mammals, the world’s 1,300 bat species know how to get around. While some have esoteric lifestyles—roosting in unfurled banana leaves or tents carved from rainforest foliage—many are less specialized, building a life wherever people have already made their mark on the land. Now adapting to the latest artifacts of human empire, bats often trade their traditional caves and trees for abandoned mines and cozy attics.

Image of Honduran white bats
A plant to call home: Tiny Honduran white bats, whose lengths average 3.7 to 4.7 centimeters, create a perfect tent for roosting by cutting the veins of Heliconia leaves. (Photo by Tim Carter, courtesy Organization for Bat Conservation)

Though resilient, these animals—who account for a quarter of all mammal species—are in decline worldwide. The pace of development is much faster than it was in the days of ancient temple-building, with chainsaws destroying natural roosting sites, pesticides decimating food supplies, and wind turbines killing bats outright. Humans have even learned how to take to the skies themselves, their long-distance flights paving the way for the speedy transport of pathogens like the one that has killed nearly 7 million bats in North America in the past 10 years.

Image of little brown bat
Biologists band and track little brown bats as part of an effort to learn more about the devastating white nose syndrome. (Photo by USFWS/Ann Froschauer/Creative Commons)

The fungus responsible for white nose syndrome likely arrived on the clothing or gear of cavers, scientists or other visitors to hibernation sites. Not known to affect bats where it originates in Europe, here the pathogen causes bats to awaken too early from winter slumber, depleting their limited fuel reserves. Transmission is so rapid that little brown bats could be gone from the eastern U.S. by 2020.

“In just a couple of decades, we’re looking at going from an extremely common species to an endangered or nearly extinct species,” says Rob Mies, executive director of the Organization for Bat Conservation. White nose syndrome will likely affect more than half of the 47 bat species in the U.S. and Canada. “For us bat biologists, it’s just absolutely devastating.”

Their vanishing would be ecologically disastrous. Most bats are insectivorous, consuming up to 120 percent of their weight daily and contributing an incalculable amount of insect control services.

Image of Mexican long-tongued bat
Mexican long-tongued bats are important pollinators of agave and cacti. (Photo by USFWS/Creative Commons)

Some are pollinators, fruit eaters, and seed dispersers, playing an important role in forest regeneration and even in happy hours.  “When you go to a Mexican restaurant and you order chips and guacamole and a margarita, those things aren’t going to exist without bats,” says Mies. “Bats pollinate avocado trees, and they also protect corn—they’re one of the most important predators of the corn earworm moth. And they’re the only pollinators of the agave that we make tequila from.”

While certain locations—like the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas—are known for harboring these quiet creatures of the night, bats are everywhere; we just don’t realize it. “When people are outside and bats are flying over their head, they don’t know they’re bats,” says John Griffin, director of the HSUS urban wildlife solutions program. “They think they’re birds.”

Image of bat at the Cape Wildlife Center
Wildlife rehabilitators take great care to avoid damaging the delicate wings of bats. (Photo by Heather Fone/The HSUS)

More closely related to whales than birds, bats can see but primarily rely on echolocation, emitting high-frequency sounds to find prey. Their wingspans belie their size; even a big brown bat is not so big at all, weighing less than an ounce, notes Deborah Millman, director of the Cape Wildlife Center in Massachusetts. Bats are so diminutive that rehabilitators feed them with tweezers and wear special gloves to protect both the handlers and the bats’ paper-thin wings.

In a retrofitted barn attic situated near night lights to attract insects, recovering bats at the Cape facility also feed themselves. Before the habitat was built, “we had one bat who was literally walking to the food dish,” says Millman, but now flying patients can build cardio strength critical to life in the wild. “We’re really bat-happy here. People are afraid of them, but they do a lot of good.”

Follow these tips to create safe spaces for these delicate creatures on your own property:

Plant a Bat Garden.
Image of bat garden sign
Hang a sign to encourage others to join the cause. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Masters of disguise, bats don’t reveal daytime whereabouts; red bats hanging from trees look like decaying leaves, Indiana bats blend into loose bark of dead and dying trees, and hoary bats’ coats mimic lichen. To help them evade predators and find roosting opportunities, leave tree snags in place and plant hickories, maples, oaks, spruces, pines, beeches, gums, and other species that will provide many nooks and crannies in the bark and trunks.

Bats eat moths and other nocturnal fliers attracted to flowers that open at sunset, such as evening primrose, or blooms that never close, such as wild bergamot. In many regions, fall is a great time to plant; find lists of recommended species, a bat garden planting guide, and bat habitat signs from the Organization for Bat Conservation.

Install a Bat Hotel.

Even if designed according to building codes specified by experts, a bat house may sit empty for years. But when an ice storm topples the preferred real estate of dead ash trees down the road, your hospitality will be well-received. “Bats aren’t going to leave a perfect place,” says Mies, “but when they need to relocate, that’s when the bat house is available.” Create your own backyard bat house with these helpful blueprints and guidelines.

Evict Humanely.

Tiny crevices leading to attics are invitations to bats. “They can virtually flatten themselves and get into really tight spaces,” says Griffin. To remove them safely, he covers gaps with a temporary fiberglass window screen open at the bottom. Called a “check valve,” the method allows bats to exit but not reenter; once they’re gone, openings can be sealed. For more information about humane eviction and exclusion methods, visit the websites of Bat Conservation International and the Humane Society of the United States.

Featured image of Rodriguez fruit bat: Alfred Viola, Northeastern University, Bugwood.org.

The original version of this article was published in the September-October issue of All Animals magazine.