Blame it on Dracula and Halloween: bats have been given a bad rap. Contrary to popular belief, the winged creatures don't prey on humans, fly into hair or even carry rabies more frequently than most mammals. In fact, bats make great garden guests. Most North American bats are insectivores, offering free and effective organic pest control; one little brown bat can kill hundreds of mosquitoes an hour. Several US species drink nectar, pollinating Saguaro cacti in the Southwest and tropical plants in Florida. By installing a bat house in your yard, you will not only give bats a home, but will also reap the many benefits they have to offer.
Bat houses can usually be purchased from bat conservation groups or in wild bird stores. If you're ambitious, you can build your own house from a design. Most bat organizations, like Bat Conservation International and the Organization for Bat Conservation, offer designs and advice on their Web sites.
The best bat houses have several important features:
Construction of exterior-grade wood that is roughened on one side (this rough side will face the interior to give the bats footholds).
The right size: Houses should be at least two feet tall and contain chambers with dimensions of 20 x 14 inches or more.
Multiple chambers: The more chambers, the better
An open bottom for bats to fly in and out through, with space for them to land
A dark, lacquered finish: This will help the house retain warmth
Location, location, location
Like all mammals, bats require a few basic things: water, warmth and protection from predators and the elements.
Water: A comfortable bat house should be close to a water source such as a lake, pond or stream. If possible, try to locate the house within a half mile of water.
Warmth: The house should get as much sunlight as possible. Though bats avoid light, they need warmth; colonies of young require temperatures of 80 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. The best way to provide this is to orient the box in a southern direction and try to make sure it will receive at least seven hours of sun daily. Boxes should also be at least 10 feet above the ground, preferably 15 feet or more.
Installation: Houses do best when mounted on poles or on the side of a house or barn. Trees are not ideal, as predators like hawks and owls tend to occupy them. It's also a good idea to make sure the house is stable enough to withstand violent weather.
Waiting for tenants
Don't be surprised if your bat house doesn't attract occupants right away. Bats are picky home-hunters, and it may take them a while to find the box. If the house is still empty after two years, however, try moving it to a new location. When you notice guano (bat droppings) under the box, you'll know it's been occupied.
Once bats move in, they remain loyal to their roost and will return year after year. Providing a bat house is healthy for your garden, providing insect control and guano, an excellent fertilizer. But creating a bat-friendly garden offers even more-it's also an opportunity to debunk unfair myths about bats and teach your friends and family the truth about these unique and beneficial creatures.
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