by Kerry Hodges
For the past two springs, I have been host to a battery.
“What are you talking about?”
I rightly hear you ask.
“Finally lost your slippery grip?”
Well, no actually, not for the moment anyway . . .
I’m talking about a nursery for baby bats, ergo, a battery. Get it?!
On a warm spring day in 2016, I went to dry some laundry in my airing cupboard and noticed little black droppings.
‘John,’ I said, ‘Time to dig out the poison, we have mice again.’
(Not that I like killing mice, poor little blighters but they do multiply with frightening speed). So John did the necessary. Climbed into the loft and put down pots of poison.
However, I kept finding the oval shaped guano in the airing cupboard and now a mildly offensive pong developed too. Mystified, I asked John to check the loft for corpses. He found no dead mice and the poison remained untouched.
One afternoon as I was removing some pillowcases, I saw movement and jumped back fearing a marauding pack of angry mice trying to get their own back on our attempt to destroy them. Cautiously I moved some sheets to find increasing piles of faecal matter. More movement. Peering nervously, I spied the reddish brown fur of a little bat, stuck, or so it seemed, to the wall by the hot water tank.
I quietly replaced the sheets and retreated to my computer where I typed ‘bats’ into Google and learnt some intriguing facts.
The species we have living under our roof is the pipistrelle (such a beautiful word), and it is Britain’s most common bat. They are typically three to five centimetres long (head and body) and their wingspan is between nineteen and 25 centimetres. They weigh between three and nine grams.
It is mid-June when I make my astonishing discovery and learn that this is the month baby pipistrelles or pups, are born. The gestation period is roughly six weeks and the females usually give birth to just one pup. They are tiny, hairless and blind during the first week of their lives. Warmth is crucial during this time; the warmer they are, the quicker they’ll grow. (No wonder my airing cupboard is a favoured spot. Clever creatures). At three weeks old, the pups are weaned and ready to fly independently.
I have frequently watched bats flying at dusk. They whizz, hurtle, scud, dart, swoop and flash. One moment ahead of me and the next behind. They are difficult to keep track of and impossible to count.
What amazes me about these creatures is that they use echolocation to track their prey. This they do by contracting their larynx; effectively using their voice as a boomerang.
They may eat their body weight in gnats in a night.
When I learn this I wish we had many more airing cupboards housing endless numbers of pups so there might be fewer gnats around. Gnats are at their terrible worst in June where I live and the bats seem to make little headway getting rid of them. The gnats still nibble my flesh, enjoying a feast with scary regularity. It can be no coincidence that this is the time of year when pups are venturing out for the first time.
What came first, the bat or the gnat?
Later that evening, I am sitting at my desk, trying to get into the writing zone when I hear a little scratching noise from one of the bedrooms. I ignore it and continue with my work. But I hear it again. It sounds desperate and I can no longer concentrate. I enter my daughter’s room (she is now living in Bristol) and find the source of the scratching. In the big metal bin I see the tiniest pipistrelle, scrabbling in vain at the deep sides, trying to escape. I can’t help but smile as I gently lift it out, carry it carefully to the airing cupboard and place it on a folded sheet hoping it’ll walk back to its nursery friends.
I try not to peek at the precious babies too often. It is tempting as they are totally enthralling. I feel honoured they have chosen to live with us.
One evening, quite late and again I am trying to write; I hear high pitched twittering and assume the bats are outside enjoying their freedom. It’s only when nature calls I find more nature in my bathroom. There is one bat hanging off the shower head, one sitting in the sink and another having a go at swimming in the loo. It appears to be drowning but it might be waving. I gingerly scoop the sodden creature out with a child’s plastic beaker (funny what you find on your shelves) and place it on a towel to dry.
I leave them to it, shutting the door to go and find another loo.
The following morning I return and see the shower and the sink bats have left the scene but the one at the pool party is lying on the towel, still wet and half dead. I gather its little body and cradle it to my chest as I hunt for the hair drier. Switching it to its quietest level, I let the warm air wash over the bat, hoping the sound won’t scare it to death. Once dry, I tuck it inside the airing cupboard and just hope.
It’s not there when I return some hours later.
There are many stories of our batty home that summer. Bats hiding in the curtains, waiting to fly out causing me to spill my tea as I try not to scream.
Bats dive bombing me as I sip a glass of Merlot. I can hear them laughing.
Bats floating lifeless in the dog’s bucket of water, like dead leaves.
One day, as I was looking for a teapot in my old Rayburn, now used for storage, I chanced upon the perfect body of a bat. The abiding memory is that of the fingers on its miniature hands. They were delicate as though painted with a fine brush, covered with a diaphanous glaze.
It’s June once again and they’re back. The familiar slightly earthy, somewhat disagreeable odour hovers on the staircase and I know that come the middle of July, I will have to empty the airing cupboard and wash every last sheet, duvet cover and towel.
That’s okay, I don’t mind. I’m thrilled the pups are there growing with each day that passes. I know they’ll be out there, on my side in the battle against the gnats within the month.
Reward enough I’d say.