Stocking Your Bat House the Hard Way

By Craig Lingle | June 2, 2004
From Missouri Conservationist: Jun 2004

Every year since we moved back to the St. Louis area from out East, I've gone through a spring ritual of rummaging through my garage, trying to find my container of bat guano. Thanks in large part to my wife's hip operation, I don't need the stuff anymore.

My annual guano search started some five years ago. I built a bat house from plans supplied by the Missouri Department of Conservation. I took some liberties with dimensions, and, of course, I used some duct tape, but it turned out all right. I hung it in a good location--not too close to the ground, in a place with some sunlight--and waited for bats to come.

I looked forward to summer evenings in the hammock, watching bats swoop through our yard and decimate the local mosquito population.

It soon became obvious that having a bat house doesn't necessarily translate to having bats. I built it, but they didn't come. I waited and hoped a bat or two would stop by for a rest, take a liking to the place, and bring back some friends. Problem was, I could never attract that all important first bat.

The year we put up our bat house, I spent many evenings in the hammock. Rarely did I see a bat swoop through our yard. I regularly checked the bat house. It was always empty. We moved the bat house. Still empty. I felt like I was fishing with the wrong bait.

After a little reading, and after talking with folks from the Conservation Department, I learned that bat guano helps attract bats to a new roost. A mixture of guano and water spread across the entrance to a bat house sends a strong aromatic message: "Others have gone here before you!"

I figured it would be best to find guano from local bats. A few phone calls narrowed my search to a nearby Missouri state park. The assistant superintendent knew where I could find plenty of guano, but she wanted me to wait until late spring, after the bats had finished overwintering in the rafters of one of the picnic shelters. The following spring she led us to the shelter where we found small piles of guano. I left with a container of bat poop in hand.

Since then I have regularly pasted guano on our bat house, but it never attracted any bats. Last spring my supply was getting low. It was then that my wife unintentionally intervened with her hip operation.

In retrospect, I should have seen it coming. Throughout the previous winter, my wife and kids had said there was something flying in our basement. I would dutifully go down, look around, and deduce that they were nuts. I didn't believe that a bat could survive all winter in our basement.

"Even if a bat were in our basement, there's not enough food and water," I argued. "He'd starve, or more likely die of dehydration." Their concerns subsided for a few weeks. By April, we'd all but forgotten about our basement bat.

Just four days after her surgery, my wife came home. After so many days in the hospital, she was happy to settle back into her own bedroom, but she could barely hoist herself out of bed to use a walker. We spent the day looking after her, and the kids all gave her a hug before going to bed. It was with great surprise that a few minutes later, while I was reading a bedtime story, I heard the slow clomp of my wife's walker in our kitchen. She called up the stairs to me. The bat had appeared.

I can't guess why the bat chose that particular night for his upstairs debut--in the bedroom, no less! When the bat first swooped around the room, my wife was lying in bed. She may have been down, but she still was plucky. She tried hitting it with a large foam pad she had received in the hospital, but the bat was too quick for her.

My wife got dizzy just watching him dash around and around, so she carefully swung herself out of bed up into her walker and began the slow trip out of the room.

I wish I had been there to see her inching doggedly along, tenaciously holding her walker, with that bat flying around her head.

After a little excitement, we were able to catch the bat and place him in an old cage. Once he was subdued, we could see how tiny he was, and yet how vicious he looked when baring his sharp little teeth. Mostly he was frightened and kept hiding beneath some leaves. We kept him a couple of days to figure out which species he was, and to let the kids see a bat up close.

He was a brown bat, a fairly common species. He'd probably blundered into our basement the previous fall, when the door had been broken and wouldn't close. Somehow he'd found enough food and water to survive the entire winter. This helped explain the lack of crickets in our basement. A year later, there still aren't many crickets in our basement.

I thank my wife's operation for forcing the bat's hand. Had a bedridden female not been in our house, the bat might never have appeared. We determined that Providence had placed him in our hands for a reason. He was the pilgrim bat that would colonize our beautiful bat house.

On a warm spring morning we took him out and, using a stout glove, I lifted him up to the mouth of the bat house. He crawled right up inside, with nary a look back. The next day I went out in the morning to check on our little brown bat. When I shone a flashlight in, three bats looked back at me. The bat had returned our favor. He'd brought buddies back with him.

And so, throughout last summer, we had bats in our bat house. They weren't there every day, and there weren't many, but they were there.

This spring, after the warm weather brought the bats out of their winter hibernation, I went out to check our bat house. Much to my satisfaction, a little fuzzy brown ball was inside. I don't have to spread guano anymore.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler