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Help bats by taking care of all forests

Sarah Farmer
Southern Research Station
October 26, 2021

A picture of three or four bats huddled together.
During the summer, tricolored bats roost in trees. However, in the winter they hibernate in caves or mines. A single bat can eat hundreds of insects every night. (USDA Forest Service photo by Andrew McCormick)

Peek underneath the loose bark of a dead tree and you might find bats roosting.

A bat’s choice for a cozy home may seem unusual. But just like people, bats need shelter, water and food to thrive. A new booklet, Forest Management and Bats, explains how anyone who manages or takes care of a forest can also help bats.

Why is this so important? Aren’t bats creepy?

“Bats are essential,” says USDA Forest Service researcher Roger Perry. “Many bats eat nearly their own body weight in moths, beetles and other insects every night.”

Over 400 bats were once recorded underneath the bark of one dead pine tree. That single colony of bats would consume millions of insects in a summer. And bats naturally control crop pests. This species of bat, called evening bats, are flying mammals that are just daytime snugglers and nighttime eco-heroes. 

So, what can forest managers and private landowners do to give them healthy habitats?

A picture showing a very large, dead tree with no leaves or pine needles on it.
 Dead and dying trees provide roosts for more than half of the 47 bat species in the U.S. (USDA Forest Service photo by Chelcy Miniat)

Creating open forests is one of the best things forest landowners can do for bats. Many forests are cluttered – a jumble of small trees and shrubs take up all the space underneath the larger trees. This familiar forest look is common today, partly because of fire suppression and not enough thinning of small trees and shrubs.

“Most bats cannot forage well in really dense, cluttered forests,” explained Perry.

Open forests, woodlands and grasslands were once common, and many species of plants and animals rely on them. Across the South, Forest Service land managers are using prescribed fire and midstory thinning to help bring open forests back.

Dead and dying trees are also good for bats. When safe, leaving dead or dying trees standing can give bats places to roost. The booklet discusses how to identify roost trees, preserve them in a forest, and work safely around them.

“Dozens of other wildlife species that depend on dead and dying trees will also benefit,” Perry said.

Except for a few species that live in deserts, bats need clean water every day. And bats drink on the fly. They swoop down for an in-flight drink from ponds, streams, ephemeral wetlands, and even the ruts of a dirt road when water pools there.

A picture of a small bat laying on a smooth surface.
White-nose syndrome is a fungal disease that has killed millions of bats since 2006. Forest Service researchers and partners are working to prevent white-nose syndrome, slow its spread, and keep bat populations healthy. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

When the booklet was first published in 2006, the terrible impacts of white-nose syndrome were still in the future. Since 2006, white-nose syndrome has killed millions of bats in the U.S. Perry led a team that updated the booklet. It now includes the latest information on white-nose syndrome.

It also features recent research on how prescribed fire and forest management affect bats. 

The booklet was published by Bat Conservation International. Daniel Taylor of Bat Conservation wrote the original version and contributed to the update. The updated publication is a 2020 product of the White-nose Syndrome National Plan.

Pest abatement, crop protection and healthy forests are all connected to bats. And restoring open forests for bats promises a wealth of ecological benefits.

A picture showing a very large group of bats huddled together.
A bat roost is any place that a wild bat uses for shelter or protection. Bats often sleep together in a large group but a roost could be a single bat, or a number of bats. Little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) in the Shipp Room, Hellhole cave. (USGS photo by Alan Cressler.)