Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Mammals by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Mammals by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Little Brown Bat

Teacher's Story

His small umbrella, quaintly halved,

Describing in the air an arc alike inscrutable,—

Elate philosopher!

—Emily Dickinson

dropcap image HOEVER first said "as blind as a bat," surely never looked a bat in the face, or he would not have said it. The deep-set, keen, observant eyes are quite in keeping with the alert attitude of the erect, pointed ears; while the pug-nose and the wide open, little, pink bag of a mouth, set with tiny, sharp teeth, give this anomalous little animal a deliciously impish look. Yet how have those old artists belied the bat, who fashioned their demons after his pattern, ears, eyes, nose, mouth, wings and all! Certain it is, if human beings ever get to be winged angels in this world, they are far more likely to have their wings fashioned like those of the bat than like those of the bird. As a matter of fact, there are no other wings so wonderful as the bat's; the thin membrane is equipped with sensitive nerves which inform the flier of the objects in his path, so that he darts among the branches of trees at terrific speed and never touches a twig; a blinded bat was once set free in a room, across which threads were stretched, and he flew about without ever touching one. After we have tamed one of these little, silky flitter-mice we soon get reconciled to his wings for he proves the cunningest of pets; he soon learns who feeds him, and is a constant source of entertainment.

The flight of the bat is the highest ideal we may have, for the achievement of the aeroplane. It consists of darting hither and thither with incredible swiftness, and making sharp turns with no apparent effort. Swifts and swallows are the only birds that can compete with the bat in wing celerity and agility; it is interesting to note that these birds also catch insects on the wing, for food. The bat, like the swift, keeps his mouth open, scooping in all the insects in his way; more than this, he makes a collecting net of the wing membrane, stretched between the hind legs and tail, doubling it up like an apron on the unfortunate insects, and then reaching down and gobbling them up; and thus he is always doing good service to us on summer evenings by swallowing mosquitoes and gnats.

The short fur of the bat is as soft as silk, and covers the body but not the wings; the plan of the wing is something like that of the duck's foot; it consists of a web stretched between very much elongated fingers. If a boy's fingers were as long, in proportion, as a bat's, they would measure four feet. Stretched between the long fingers is a thin, rubbery membrane, which extends back to the ankles and thence back to the tip of the bony tail; thus, the bat has a winged margin all around his body. Since fingers make the framework, it is the thumb that projects from the front angle of the wing, in the form of a very serviceable hook, resembling that used by a one-armed man to replace the lost member. These hooks the bat uses in many ways. He drags himself along the floor with their aid, or he scratches the back of his head with them, if occasion requires. He is essentially a creature of the air and is not at all fitted for walking; his knees bend backward in an opposite direction from ours. This renders him unable to walk, and when attempting to do so, he has the appearance of "scrabbling" along on his feet and elbows. When thus moving he keeps his wings fluttering rapidly, as if feeling his way in the dark, and his movements are trembly. He uses his teeth to aid in climbing.

The little brown bat's wings often measure nine inches from tip to tip, and yet he folds them so that they scarcely show; he does not fold them like a fan, but rather like a pocket knife. The hind legs merely act as a support for the side wing, and the little hip bones look pitifully sharp; the membrane reaches only to the ankle, the tiny emaciated foot projecting from it is armed with five, wirelike toes, tipped with sharp hooked claws. It is by these claws that he hangs when resting during the day, for he is upside-down-y in his sleeping habits, slumbering during the daytime, while hanging head downward, without any inconvenience from a rush of blood to the brain; when thus suspended, the tail is folded down. Sometimes he hangs by one hind foot and a front hook; and he is a wee thing when all folded together and hung up, with his nose tucked between his hooked thumbs, in a very babyish fashion.

The bat is very particular about his personal cleanliness. People who regard the bat as a dirty creature, had better look to it that they are even half as fastidious as he. He washes his face with the front part of his wing, and then licks his wash-cloth clean; he scratches the back of his head with his hind foot and then licks the foot; when hanging head down, he will reach one hind foot down and scratch behind his ear with an aplomb  truly comical in such a mite; but it is most fun of all to see him clean his wings; he seizes the edges in his mouth and stretches and licks the membrane until we are sure it is made of silk elastic, for he pulls and hauls it in a way truly amazing.

The bat has a voice which sounds like the squeak of a toy wheelbarrow, and yet it is expressive of emotions. He squeaks in one tone when holding conversation with other bats, and squeaks quite differently when seized by the enemy.

The mother bat feeds her little ones from her breasts as a mouse does its young, only she cradles them in her soft wings while so doing; often she takes them with her when she goes out for insects in the evenings; they cling to her neck during these exciting rides; but when she wishes to work unencumbered, she hangs her tiny youngsters on some twig and goes back to them later. The little ones are born in July and usually occur as twins. During the winter, bats hibernate like woodchucks or chipmunks. They select for winter quarters some hollow tree or cave or other protected place. They go to sleep when the cold weather comes, and do not awake until the insects are flying; they then come forth in the evenings, or perhaps early in the morning, and do their best to rid the world of mosquitoes and other insect nuisances.


The Little Brown Bat

There are many senseless fears about the bat; for instance, that he likes to get tangled in a lady's tresses, a situation which would frighten him far more than the lady; or that he brings bedbugs into the house, when he enters on his quest for mosquitoes, which is an ungrateful slander. Some people believe that all bats are vampires, and only await an opportunity to suck blood from their victims. It is true that in South America there are two species which occasionally attack people who are careless enough to sleep with their toes uncovered, but feet thus injured seem to recover speedily; and these bats do little damage to people, although they sometimes pester animals; but there are no vampires in the United States. Our bats, on the contrary, are innocent and beneficial to man; and if we had more of them we should have less malaria. There a few species in our country, which have little, leaf-like growths on the end of the nose; and when scientists study the bat from a nature-study instead of an anatomical standpoint, we shall know what these leafy appendages are used for.

Lesson LIX

The Bat

Leading thought—Although the bat's wings are very different from those of the bird's yet it is a rapid and agile flier. It flies in the dusk and catches great numbers of mosquitoes and other troublesome insects, upon which it feeds.

Method—This lesson should not be given unless there is a live bat to illustrate it; the little creature can be cared for comfortably in a cage in the schoolroom, as it will soon learn to take flies or bits of raw meat when presented on the point of a pencil or toothpick. Any bat will do for this study, although the little brown bat is the one on which my observations were made.


1. At what time of day do we see bats flying? Describe how the bat's flight differs from that of birds. Why do bats dart about so rapidly?

2. Look at a captive bat and describe its wings. Can you see what makes the framework of the wings? Do you see the three finger bones extending out into the wings? How do the hind legs support the wing? The tail? Is the wing membrane covered with fur? Is it thick and leathery or thin and silky and elastic? How does the bat fold up its wings?

3. In what position does the bat rest? Does it ever hang by its thumb hooks?

4. Can you see whether the knees of the hind legs bend upward or downward? How does the bat act when trying to walk or crawl? How does it use its thumb hooks in doing this?

5. What does the bat do daytimes? Where does it stay during the day? Do many bats congregate together in their roosts?

6. Describe the bat's head, including the ears, eyes, nose and mouth. What is its general expression? Do you think it can see and hear well? How is its mouth fitted for catching insects? Does it shut its mouth while chewing or keep it open? Do you think that bats can see by daylight?

7. What noises does a bat make? How does it act if you try to touch it? Can it bite severely? Can you understand why the Germans call it a flitter-mouse?

8. Do you know how the mother bat cares for her young? How does she carry them? At what time of year may we expect to find them?

9. When making its toilet, how does a bat clean its wings? Its face? Its back? Its feet? Do you know if it is very clean in its habits?

10. How and where do the bats pass the winter? How are they beneficial to us? Are they ever harmful?

Supplementary reading—American Animals, Stone and Cram.

Nature-study should not be unrelated to the child's life and circumstances. It stands for directness and naturalness. It is astonishing when one comes to think of it, how indirect and how remote from the lives of pupils much of our education has been. Geography still often begins with the universe, and finally, perhaps, comes down to some concrete and familiar object or scene that the pupil can understand. Arithmetic has to do with brokerage and partnerships and partial payments and other things that mean nothing to the child. Botany begins with cells and protoplasm and cryptogams. History deals with political and military affairs, and only rarely comes down to physical facts and to those events that express the real lives of the people; and yet political and social affairs are only the results of expressions of the way in which people live. Readers begin with mere literature or with stories of scenes the child will never see. Of course these statements are meant to be only general, as illustrating what is even yet a great fault in educational methods. There are many exceptions, and these are becoming commoner. Surely, the best education is that which begins with the materials at hand. A child knows a stone before it knows the earth.

L. H. Bailey

"The Nature-Study Idea"

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