NYC bat study shines light on rarely documented mammals in urban habitat

A rescued Eastern  Red bat  found in a garbage can on Ninth Avenue in midtown.
A rescued Eastern Red bat found in a garbage can on Ninth Avenue in midtown. Photo Credit: Theodore Parisienne

We’re battin’ 1,000 – and probably more.

The city’s first known published study of bats has documented five different species in the Bronx – the Eastern Red Bat, Hoary Bat, Big Brown Bat, Silver Haired Bat and Tri-Colored Bat.

“We predicted Big Brown Bats to be most common,” but that honor is held by the diminutive, moth-loving Eastern Red Bat, said J. Alan Clark, one of the authors of “Bats in the Bronx: Acoustic Monitoring in NYC” and an associate professor in the biological sciences at Fordham University. Cave dwelling Little Brown Bats, “were hit so very, very hard by white nose syndrome,” a lethal fungus that has flourished in warmer conditions, “we didn’t find any,” Clark said.

Though the findings did not include a numerical census, but it’s not just the Bronx that’s batty. The insect eaters can be anywhere there is a bug-producing green space and a place to roost. “There are also bats in SoHo: They’re foraging for insects. The Eastern Red Bats roost in trees and look just like dead leaves,” noted Kaitlyn Parkins, a bat ecologist and the lead author of “Bats in the Bronx.” Parkins is also lead author of another study that found that the level of “bat activity” was higher over green roofs than conventional roofs in the city.

But big cities can be difficult places for the flying mammals, who have a P.R. problem as a result of fears, Parkins continued: “There are a lot of myths – like they drink your blood, or will try to fly in your hair, or they all have rabies when clearly the statistics say otherwise.”

Indeed. Of the 3,081 bats tested for rabies in New York State last year (bats comprised more than half of all animals tested), only 3.3%, were positive for the rabies virus, according to the New York State Department of Health’s 2015 Rabies report. While only 172 skunks were submitted for testing, 38.4% of skunks (and 33.3% of foxes), were found to be rabies positive. No human in NYC has had rabies in more than 70 years (that case was contracted from a dog) and only 2 bats found in the city since 2014 tested positive for rabies. Two people in NYC were required to take rabies PEP shots in 2015 “as a precaution” following their exposure to bats, according to the NYC health department.

According to a city spokeswoman, people who encounter bats outside of a park (where they belong, and should be left alone) should “leave it where it is and call 311.”

But those calls have a high likelihood of being routed to Animal Care & Control (ACC). If a bat winds up there, it “is 100% of the time killed,” so officials can examine its brain tissue for signs of rabies infection, said Jenny Topolski, a wildlife rehabber for Urban Utopia Wildlife Rehabilitation. (A city health department representative confirmed any bat brought into the ACC is euthanized and tested for rabies; the ACC referred calls back to the health department.)

“You cannot legally rehab a bat in NYC,” as a result of multiple bureaucracies failing to agree on how and whether to license civilians who handle bats, said Topolski, wants a cohesive protocol around handling animals to prevent unnecessary animal deaths while maintaining human safeguards. “We really need an official policy on what to do with all these rabies vector species: It should be known what to do 100% of the time. . . . It’s just a mess: No one knows what to do,” she said.

Parkins agreed. “There is an underground system of rehabbers who will take them, but they can’t advertise or they’ll get in trouble,” she explained.

Some sympathizers reluctant to involve the ACC find helpful guidance at batworld.org, which gives tips on safely getting bats out of houses and prescribes safeguards if they need to be moved.

Touching a bat is likely to doom it to death, even by a rehabber, because of its designation as a “rabies vector species.” The State Health Department added in a statement that local health departments “would only request a bat be turned in if there was a reason to test, in which case it would be euthanized.”

One such rehabber in NYC, who agreed to speak if she was kept anonymous, said she has treated six or seven bats this year. Most get released locally, with later arrivals being sent to specialists elsewhere to hibernate until Spring, when they are returned and released. But last month she was forced to euthanize a bat brought to her because “six different people had handled it.” The bat was negative for rabies.

Humans should never, ever touch a bat with their bare hands as bats have extremely tiny, needle like teeth and people may not realize they have been bitten, explained the rehabber. Sensitive to the plight of people who find bats in places they don’t belong, she advised using thick gloves or a towel to nudge it into a box. If the weather is above 50 degrees, the bat can be released in a park at twilight. If it’s colder than 50 degrees, though, she suggests it be taken to a rehabber who is up to date on rabies vaccinations. Bat discoveries in kooky places “will all be over in a few weeks,” when the weather turns reliably cold, she said,

The rehabber would also like to see licensing for people who work with the creatures, and more education, to prevent needless death. “We have to take care of these little guys,” she said, as they face ever increasing threats from diseases such as white nose syndrome, global warming, and urbanization. Speaking of which, how did the pervasive spraying of pesticides to kill mosquitoes this summer affect NYC’s bats?

“The bats we have in our city are generally not just eating mosquitoes,” said Parkins, noting that a genetic analysis of Eastern Red Bat feces determined that specie’s diet was “70% moths.” The NYC Health Department said the chemicals used have been approved by the EPA and NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and when used appropriately “do not pose unreasonable risks to wildlife.”