When dusk creeps over the land, out come the little Bats to join the hunters of the night. Over the hedgerows and tree-tops, round barns and churches, and along the river-banks they pursue their prey—moths, beetles, and flies. Their silent flight is quite different from that of the bird, and more like the soft, zigzag flitting of a big moth. Bats are weird little animals. No wonder we find them in so many fables, and always with imps, goblins, and witches. But the Bat is really a highly favoured child of Nature. As you may know, it belongs to her very highest class of animals, the mammals— those that suckle their young; and of all this great class they are the only ones with wings. No other mammal has received that precious gift—the power of flight. Most mammals walk the earth, or climb the trees. A few, like the Whale and Porpoise, live under the ocean wave. One, and one only, can spread its wings and fly with the ease of a bird.
So we find the Bat not at all "horrid" or "creepy," but a creature well worth watching. We can smile at the old mistake of calling it a "bird" because it flies, a "mouse" because it has fur, or a flying "reptile" because it has "leathery" wings. It is a true mammal, and placed high on the wonderful list of Nature's children.
Let us look at its little body, before we follow its story further. In science it has a long name, which merely means "hand-winged." That name gives you the secret of the Bat's flight. Have you ever had a near look at one of these quaint animals? If so, you will have seen that its wing is a soft, elastic, silky skin. It begins by the Bat's neck, and reaches along the sides of the body right down to the leg and on to the ankle. This skin is stretched over the arm-bone, and spread out on four very long fingers, as the silk of an umbrella is stretched over the ribs. Nature has made many different kinds of living flying-machines. In the case of the Bat she has turned the front limb into a splendid wing, by stretching a wide sheet of thin skin over four long, thin fingers. This wing folds nicely when not in use. The thumb is quite short. Instead of helping to form the wing, it is merely a claw. It shows above the margin of the wing, and is used at times as a hook.
The two legs are weak, but of great use when the Bat hangs itself head downward for the day's sleep. Watch a Bat climbing along a branch, or down the wires of a cage. It shuffles along in an awkward way, first using the thumb and foot of one side, then those of the other side. Thus it stumbles from side to side and staggers forward. The queer little creature, so quick and active in the air, is nearly helpless on earth. It cannot stand up on its legs. And, strange to say, its knee points backwards instead of forwards!
Turning somersaults and "looping the loop" seem easy to the Bat. In this way it catches prey, and munches it with sharp teeth. Our largest Bat, the Noctule, may often be seen to tumble in the air. While doing so, it is pushing an extra large insect into its mouth by means of its hooked thumb.
These Noctules like to in habit hollow trees. In the dim light a score or so of them, hanging by their toes, make a weird sight. Each wrinkled face— rather like a small bulldog's—is turned towards you, the deep little eyes glinting with a look of fear. The sharp teeth are bared, ready to bite you, but they are too small to do any harm. Your visit to the Bat's bedroom will be a short one, for the smell is strong and not pleasant.
The Noctule flies high in the summer twilight, and utters a cry like two pennies clicked together. The common little Pipistrelle Bat has a high, squeaky note, which many people are quite unable to hear. One of the puzzles of the Bat's life is its strange power of finding its way in the dark. Its eyes are quite sharp, but even if they were bandaged the Bat could find a clear path in the air. It is said that the secret lies in certain very, very delicate nerves on the bare skin of the wing, ear and nose.
Some Bats have wonderful noses, like bunches of leaves; others have two or three ear-trumpets. Bats often live in dark caves, where the keenest sight would not help them to steer a clear course. Yet they fly freely and swiftly. A few of these Bats were once shut in a dark passage, with strings hung here and there from the ceiling and from wall to wall. Yet these gifted animals were able to guide their way without once entangling themselves in , the string. We can only explain it by saying that the Bat is able to feel even small objects at a distance.
The nursery life of a baby Bat is not a very comfortable one. As the mother makes no nest, she has no choice but to carry the baby with her during the evening flight. At first it is quite hairless, with pinkish, wrinkled skin, and a curious, ugly, puckered face. It has no brothers or sisters, for how could Mrs. Bat care for a large family! The baby clings to its mother as she flits in the air hunting moths and beetles. So tightly does it cling to her fur with its tiny thumbs and toes that it can only be pulled off with difficulty. When the mother returns to rest, she hangs herself head-down and folds her large wings round her child. The young one is left at home by the time it has grown a short, thick fur. It dare not venture out until its wings and muscles are ready for flight.
Bats are timid, nervous little creatures, lovers of darkness, hard to tame, and far from being clever. Also, many of them have a very unpleasant odour; and their pretty fur is apt to contain a number of unwanted insect guests. They look so large in the air that one is surprised by the actual size of their furry little bodies. They are mostly wings and ears! The tiniest hole in a cage gives them a chance of escape, which they are not slow to seize!
Like other insect-eaters, the Bat has to find a way of living through our winter months. Instead of flying to a warmer country, it sinks into a sound sleep. A hollow tree, a barn roof, or a church tower makes a suitable sleeping-place. You might there see clusters of Bats, hanging as if dead, each wrapped in its wings, and sound asleep. The little Pipistrelle is the lightest sleeper of all our British Bats. In the south of England it may be seen on the wing when a warm wind drives the feel of winter away, and tempts flies and gnats to dance in sheltered corners.