Archived Mountain Voices

Batting away undeserved prejudice

Unfortunately, more undeserved prejudice exists about bats than any other animal, except, of course, serpents. 

In European lore, vampires (a word derived from the Serbian “wampir”) were bloodsucking ghosts, dead men’s souls that siphoned blood from sleeping victims.

The name “vampire” was then applied by the French naturalist Buffon to bats observed taking blood from other animals in the South American tropics. Before long, the gothic novelists back in Europe were depicting bat-like beings that sought out victims (usually beautiful damsels) in their bedchambers at night (where else?).

The bat species ranging from Mexico to Argentina that do feed on the blood of other mammals usually attack large animals like horses and cows. They land near the animal, climb up its leg, and select a sparsely haired spot into which they make superficial bites that allow them to gorge on oozing blood. These bats can’t do much with dogs, which can also pick up high-frequency sounds and hear them coming.

The real danger to the targeted animal is not the bite or the blood loss, but the fact that bats can transmit rabies. According to information compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are usually only one or two human cases per year in the United States. Species found in Western North Carolina tend to avoid human contact, and their jaws are so weak they could hardly break the skin of someone who attempted to hold one.

Bats are, in essence, mammals that can capture insects on the wing or feed on fruit high in trees. By evolving wing-like appendages, they were able to exploit a niche in the food chain other mammals couldn’t utilize.

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According to Mammals of the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland (UNC Press, 1985), there are 13 bat species in Western North Carolina. Their days are mostly spent in old buildings, tree cavities and caves.

While a bat’s vision is notoriously poor, it navigates the nighttime skies with exquisite precision. A sophisticated echolocation system allows them to emit ultrasonic sounds through their mouth or nose. These are set at a frequency far beyond the limits of human hearing. The lumps that can be observed on a bat’s nose are thought to aid in the production of these sound pulses.

Returning vibrations (echoes) received in oversized highly sensitive ears from trees, posts, fences, etc., warn them to navigate around or through these obstacles. But they instantly hone in on vibrations emitted by insects. Watch a bat circling your yard and you’ll notice that it sometimes pauses briefly in mid-flight with its hind parts directed ground ward. This is the moment at which the bat is capturing an insect by literally enfolding the prey into its mouth with the aid of its wing and tail.

The critters are insect-capturing machines almost without equal. Olaf Ryberg, a Swedish scientist, performed tests in which he determined that bats hear “a fly cleaning its wings or rubbing its legs together. Immediately the ears of the bat would be erected and pointed in the direction of the insect. Then the bat would dart in that direction and snap up the fly its ears had first discovered.” A little brown bat can capture and eat up 1,000 mosquitoes in an hour. 

The ancient Cherokees weren’t sure how to categorize bats in the great scheme of things. Were they most closely related to the four-legged terrestrial animals who resided in the Middle World or to the ones in the Upper World that had wings and could fly? They apparently concluded that bats have a place in both worlds. 

When the animals were preparing for the great mythical stickball game, the mammals rejected the bats as members of their team because of their diminutive size. But they were accepted by the birds — which created wings for them from pieces of groundhog skin. 

When they threw the ball to him, the bat dodged and circled so that it never touched the ground. In the great stickball game, the bat flew close to the ground, weaving here and there, until he threw the ball between the goal posts and won the game for the birds … even though he was a mammal.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..      

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