What do bats smell like? We get this question a lot and it’s actually a fun question to answer. Bats do have an odor but they don’t stink; in fact, their scents range from pleasant to weird depending on the species and even their activities. Below is a personal description of the various “essences of bats” I have encountered over the past 25 years.
BRAZILIAN FREE-TAILED BATS I first noticed the smell of Brazilian free-tails back in the early 90s when I detected a familiar odor coming from their tiny 2″ bodies.
For the longest time I couldn’t put my finger on what they smelled like, I just knew the scent was pleasant. Then, one day, while walking down a grocery store aisle, I smelled it, the unmistakable smell of a Brazilian free-tailed bat – only it wasn’t a bat, it was corn tortillas! I picked up a package, held it under my nose and sniffed. There it was, the sweet smell of corn masa – so close to a free-tailed bat it was hard to tell the difference. Years later I shared this information with my then co-author and she shared it with a researcher who decided to investigate further. Using odor-tracking software, the researcher discovered that Brazilian free-tailed bats share the same chemical compound responsible for corn flour: 2-aminoacetophenone (read paper here). This compound is present in tortillas and many other foods. Interestingly, a primary portion of a free-tailed bat’s diet in the wild is the corn-borer moth. Another interesting note is that during release and right before take off, male Brazilian free-tailed bats emit a scent that smells like a bouquet of flowers.
HOARY BATS AND RED BATS Hoary bats and red bats are both solitary species that roost in trees. Their unique fur coloring helps to camouflage them and keep them safe by making them appear as pine cones, dried leaves or even tree bark. These insect-eating bats are among the most beautiful in the US but have the unfortunate (albeit very faint) odor of fish combined with urine.
PALLID BATS In my opinion big-eared pallid bats are the true fairies of the wood. They are exquisite little beings with endearing faces, yet these gentle bats are known for their ability to eat scorpions and centipedes while remaining oblivious to the stings. They don’t have much of an odor unless they are under stress. When that happens they smell very much like a skunk.
Evening bats resemble miniature 2″ grizzly bears. They eat cucumber beetles, Japanese beetles, carabidae beetles, June bugs, flying ants, spittle bugs, stinkbugs, and small moths, and they smell like burnt oranges.
AFRICAN FRUIT BATS
Sometimes called straw-colored fruit bats, these cat-sized bats eat dates, baobab flowers, mangoes, pawpaws, avocados, figs, passion fruit and more, helping to spread the seeds of these plants over thousands of miles in Africa. African fruit bats don’t have much of an odor unless they are stressed. When that happens they smell like licorice combined with road tar.
EGYPTIAN FRUIT BATS These squirrel-sized bats eat a variety of exotic fruits from tropical shrubs and trees in the wild. Wild dates and figs are among their favorite foods but they also enjoy plant nectar. These bats have the pleasant aroma of warm fruit jam.
JAMAICAN FRUIT BATS These hamster-sized bats eat fragrant fruits like figs, various leaves, flowers, pollen, nectar and even nuts in the wild. They also help to spread the seeds of the allspice tree which brings in millions of dollars a year to Jamaica’s economy. These bats don’t have much of a smell individually but when snuggled together they emit a fragrance comparable to perfumed soap.
We’d only just left the craft shop victorious and near-helplessly laughing, and now we were going back. Amanda had met us in the parking lot and said they’d called in the two minutes since we left saying there was another one. Myself, I just figured it was the other half of a teenage bat duo that had dared each other to go inside, this one hiding while the other stirred things up in the shop. In other words, this second one was the smart one; in any good duo, there’s always the Smart One.
Amanda knew better. This was August, when bat activity is at or near its peak. They’re gearing up for their migratory return to Mexico, swarming is in full swing and life is one long love-drunk mosquito feast. That meant it was possible that there could be a great many more bats in that building, likely all juvies, young and inexperienced bats who might be lost inside that building, trapped over nothing more than a joy ride with an unexpectedly harsh learning curve, as joy rides often foist upon the young. I felt good this time, still marveling over the first rescue just minutes before. How it had just let me pick it up like that. Amanda had told me that would happen, though it seemed unbelievable at the time; she is convinced that on some level beyond the instinctual need to evade, they know that we’re trying to help them. I was inclined to agree now. Certainly I was too inexperienced to credibly disagree, at any rate. And this second bat, we would soon discover, disagreed entirely.
Once we arrived we were led to the back – it’s always thrilling on some very mundane level to gain access to the Back Room of any establishment – and there spied the first bat’s compatriot flying frantic circles. The left part of the room was partitioned off the from the rest, and we passed it by again and again trying to keep the bat in sight and wait for it to tire and land. It eventually decided the smaller extremity had more nooks and crannies to use; shelving, things on those shelves, exposed studs and door frames in the wall, etc. There were a couple near-catches on the shelving, both times almost coming close enough to stroke its fur before it exploded into the air with a startling suddenness that can only be summoned up by the young. Then it alighted upon a door frame whose studs were exposed and easily slipped in between them. It was a narrow space, no bigger than half an inch running the entire height of the door, and there was no way our hands would fit to pluck up our refugee. Then, as if this weren’t enough, it worked its way to the very top of the gap, hemming itself in tightly on three sides.
Had I not been processing my first rescue just a few minutes before, the fact that I was now a bat rescuer, that when someone calls about a bat in their bedroom, I’m now one of the people who shows up, I might have known what to do. Pride and incredulity have always been great hindrances to clear thought.
Angela, however, had been through this phase already and retrieved an old dry erase marker from a nearby shelf. It was just the thing.
Here’s an obscure fact about Mexican free tails: they really don’t like anything to touch their backside. Tail, pelvis, feet, anything back there; they hate it. It’s likely a defense mechanism, but whatever the reason, it makes them move, and without having to use anything even approaching force.
Angela exploited this now and prodded gently with the dry erase marker (with the cap still on, of course), and while the bat resisted, it just couldn’t stand it and took little time in crawling from the gap. I in turn wasted little time myself in getting a black gloved hand around it. We’d caught the Smart One.
Then, incredibly, as we turned to leave, another bat flew past, but this one lacked the moxy of its friend, and it didn’t elude us for long. Still, while I was unmistakably proud of this new work that I’d just found I could do, and do well, there was little to exult over. Three bats in what was essentially a single two-part trip was troubling.
When we got back, Amanda got straight to work rehydrating the poor things while Angela and I stood close and discussed what we knew up to now, about the building and the current situation both. We decided that the worst-case scenario for this problem – that a great many bats had again been trapped in the abandoned upper floors of the building – was too possible and too severe to ignore. Not likely perhaps, but easily possible. We had to go up there, knowing that one of those abandoned pitch-dark floors had once been a funeral home and had seen as much human suffering and death as that of bats, that we might be walking into a mass grave, that we might find dozens of them in similar or worse shape as these, that we might find enough to make for a very long night for them and us.
Once our poor juvies had been tended, we all three set out to a highly unusual excursion; we try to always keep one volunteer at Bat World, and Amanda does her best to be there all the time, but if our worst case scenario played out, we’d all be needed.
Though now we arrived unbidden, the shop owner gladly led us into the back and gave us permission to ascend the gaping dark stairway into a much older place than I for one was accustomed to walk in.
Of course most of the buildings of downtown Mineral Wells were built in the late 1800s, and I’d certainly in my entire life here been in a few of them before, but now, here, above the shop, that age was laid bare. The stairways sagged just slightly, keeping us against the wall as we climbed, going one at a time. Age had stripped away whatever finish or paint the wooden bannisters and floors might have once had, and even the appearance of having been sanded smooth. The doors were all old, heavy and creaky, and at one end was the old viewing room, now empty. The poet in me wants to say that the sheer amount of tears shed in this room over the years could still be felt, but honestly even that was gone.
And darkness. It was dark like I’d never seen before, not outside of a closet I was hiding in playing hide and seek as a child. Even under the darkest new moon there are still stars trickling their nigh-invisible light. Not here. Here we had only our voices and our headlamps with which to navigate this old place that no longer had anything for humans and bats alike.
Amanda had been here before and has spent so much time around bats that their capacity for navigating this sort of totalitarian darkness has rubbed off on her, and she immediately set us to work closing those doors over there, opening this one, checking the ones back there, closing off everything but the hallway so that the bats couldn’t dally in the rooms off the side, but had to continue either downward to the shop where they would be seen and rescued or go back up to the top floor where they could leave again. That done, we made to ascend to the top floor.
As we crested the stairs, we found a dead free tail.
He was only two flights of stairs and a terrified shopkeeper away from rescue, but he didn’t make it. He was stiff, but clearly hadn’t been here long. We left him where he fell – he was a wild animal, this was a wild place, and he was not trash to be disposed of – and kept on, wondering how many more we’d find and if the three recuperating back in the rehab room worried where their friend had gone.
We found no more, and selectively closed off doors as we had below to minimize their chances of getting lost. We also found where they’d been coming in: a hole in the ceiling of a closet. The bathroom that the closet was in was little bigger than the closet itself, and that was what was posing such a problem. For a bat to fly straight up they need to build up speed, and there was simply not enough space for it. We scavenged a slender board that bats could easy grab onto and leaned it up against the mouth of the hole so that they could climb up and out. With much shorter pieces we did likewise for the lidless toilet and sink and made our way back down. On our way back to daylight we advised the shop owners to close off that stairway and returned to Bat World.
Three days passed, and with each one the juvies regained their strength and restlessness, and as one always hopes but is never quite precisely happy about, the time came to release them. It’s the ultimate hallmark of a successful rehabilitation, but after hand feeding them day after day, it’s a bittersweet moment.
We do our releases at the wild sanctuary, another old building purchased by Amanda years back to protect the bats that had taken up residence in it. Currently it houses approximately 50,000 bats in the summertime; in its heyday it had three times that many. As with every other aspect of this rescue, this was my first time to experience it.
I wouldn’t forget it. Nobody would forget it. The ceiling was very high, and the walls had been knocked out to create a huge expanse for the bats to fly in yet stay out of the weather. Screens had been put up to deny them access to the rest of the building. This was for their own safety, so they wouldn’t get lost. Still, they didn’t want for room to flap their wings. At all. Otherwise the building showed it age much like the one we’d explored days ago.
But the bats…they covered every beam, every rafter, they were strewn across the walls, and perhaps double that number again were filling the air constantly. Their smell – bats smell like bats the way dogs smell like dogs – was powerful, drowning out all else. They whipped fearlessly past your head, secure in their own domain, in the arrogance possessed by a creature in its element. Their tens of thousands of voices blended into a smooth, pulsing rhythm, as if gathered here as a colony they spoke as one. Amanda was walking to the area where she releases bats and telling me about this literally awesome place she’d brought me to, and I didn’t hear a word. I was only staring upward, actually tangibly speechless perhaps for the first time in my life.
Then, of course, I felt the bat urine start pelting my head and determined that staring upward with my mouth agape wasn’t really a good idea. It’s not a place that one takes a casual stroll through; we have to cover up with protective gear just to go inside for a moment. If that’s the price to see a sight like that, it’s a very small one.
The juvies appeared similarly overwhelmed; it was very likely their first time seeing something like this too. As Amanda retrieved them from the bat carrier they hunkered excitedly on the tips of her fingers, leaning eagerly forward toward the teeming brothers and sisters they never knew they had, tentatively flapping their wings just on the cusp of becoming airborne only to back off again and consider the situation more. Perhaps they wondered if they would be accepted, even though bats are very accepting and even altruistic animals. Maybe they were just as overwhelmed as I was. All that could be known for sure is that as apprehensive as this big new place made them, the rolling manifold voice of this place entranced them, and they knew that their place was with it, not us. To the side, I stood ready to collect them if they fell, and we, human and bat alike, waited.
One finally made the leap, taking to the air and quickly losing itself in the crowd. The second followed, nearly falling to the ground before finding its lift and rising up. More hesitant, the last pup took a little longer.
We were grateful for the extra few seconds with it, because too soon it lit off toward its friends, and just like that the story was over.
It was around mid-day during my second week of work, just as we were preparing to dice an entire grocery store’s produce section for Peekaboo‘s dinner, when the call came in. Of course Angela and I could only hear one half of the conversation, but the other half wasn’t hard to discern.
Broken sentences as the caller interrupted repeatedly in what seemed like a panic. Amanda trying three separate times to say “I’m not asking you to touch it…” and instead asking the caller to toss a sheet or towel over it so that it would be concealed yet gently restrained, keeping it in place for our arrival and helping it to feel as secure as a lost, terrified and likely dehydrated bat can. It sounds odd, I know, but crevice dwelling bats absolutely adore tight, confined spaces because it makes them feel hidden and safe. A few more aborted attempts to communicate, and then just like that it was away from the bananas and off to a local craft store to do yet another thing that I never thought I’d do: go on a rescue call for Bat World Sanctuary.
It wasn’t how I wanted my first rescue to be. I’d hoped for people who cared for their welfare, who didn’t see them as harbingers of disease and mouth foam, who understood why we did what we did and would be supportive so that all I had to worry about was the technique of approaching and catching a wild bat. We weren’t going to get that, but I was thankful that this wouldn’t be Angela’s first rescue, at least. I could simply play a support role. For eleven years previous to this, support was largely my job: anticipating what was needed and then doing it. Perhaps I’d suck at rescuing bats – we’d find out soon – but I was good at support. Reminding myself calmed the nerves a bit.
The building in which the shop resided had for years been problematic for juvenile bats who might have mastered the art of becoming airborne but might not be so good at staying there yet, much less the no doubt intricate and delicate process of navigating via echolocation. Ever since Bat World’s inception, young bats have frequently made their way inside and subsequently been unable to find their way out. Ballpark estimates are that over one thousand bats have been pulled out of that building over the years. Conversely, there is perhaps no way to accurately judge how many simply died in there due to the recalcitrance of the building’s management. To the extent that Bat World has been allowed to help, however, the number of lost bats has decreased from a few hundred every summer to a mere dozen now and then over the past decade and a half.
With this, a carrier pouch, a nitrile glove and various literatures that would hopefully allay some of the irrational fear of our panicking merchants, we parked outside and walked in. Angela engaged them right away, and I was happy to see my hopes of keeping to the kiddie pool for this one were playing out. Alas, and also fortunately, it was not to be.
The shopkeepers, before describing their absolute certainty that this fragile three inch long mammal intended to kill them, informed us that it was last seen under a table. In turn, we informed them that it was no longer there. As we searched they bombarded us with questions that Angela, sensing perhaps that I was on the verge of overwhelmed, answered:
What do you do with them after you catch them? You KEEP them? You’re TRAINING to do this? How many do you have over there? So will it try to attack us? Are you sure? It was flying really close to my head. Why do they do that?
This continued as we spotted the bat above a display rack. It continued as they very eagerly fetched a ladder so we could get it. It continued as I was preparing to be johnny-on-the-spot with the carrier pouch, and it only stopped when Angela said the words:
“Do you want to get this one?” All three waited for my response. I was On The Spot.
What could I do? My ego wasn’t about to permit me to say no thank you, Angela, I’m afraid of heights and failure. Couldn’t be done. There was, in fact, only one thing that could be done: catch the wild bat that had been “terrorizing” these women all morning.
Let’s stop and break this down for a second, because I feel like a lot of people think animal rescue is going somewhere and plucking up a grateful puppy from, like, a mud puddle, and it licks your face and you giggle and all present go Awww, is the widdle puppy all muddy? YES he IS, he is SOOO muddy! and we shall clean him with kisses! and then we all cuddle the rest of the day.
This was not a puppy; it was a cornered, frightened wild animal. You know that saying “so ‘n’ so fought like a cornered animal”? I do too, and yet what was I doing? Putting on a glove and climbing up a ladder and a phobia so I could corner a wild animal. It wasn’t like rounding a corner and finding you’d accidentally hemmed in some stray dog, I was intentionally laying the trap. A benign trap, but a trap just the same.Climbing up a ladder thinking Well good, this is what I quit my job to do, what a great decision. Climbing up a ladder wondering at how I’d come to be on this ladder at this moment preparing to do something that by conventional terms could be fairly described as ill advised, high above the ground where with each rung my body’s refusal to move and risk upsetting my balance became harder to overcome, and all with three women standing below all watching intently.
One rung, and then another. You know how it is when you’re doing something that you’re completely certain will result in some manner of harm coming to you; you just move mechanically while your brain is throwing every brake it can lay synapses on. One rung and then another while in my head the bat took off at the last second over and over again, barreling straight into my face, and then we both plummet to the floor.
Then, suddenly, my brain’s unlikely and revolving perambulations ceased, because there it really was; the errant beast was a scant few inches from my face: a little juvenile, certainly far more frightened than any of us, lost, dehydrated, nearly spent, but by no means lacking in defiance. You know how teenagers are. It looked me right in the eye, hunkered down and braced its forearms. Whether for flight or, you know, actual flight, I wasn’t sure. I intensely wished that somebody would happen into the shop just then, whereupon the clever and courageous little creature would, instead of injuring/humiliating me, seize the opportunity and fly straight for the open door and to freedom.
That didn’t happen.
So, with heart pounding and breath held, I reached out. From below I heard “You’re going to use your hand??”
This made me desperately want to laugh; my hand was gloved, after all. Those of you who’ve spent a good deal of your childhood in church know my predicament: when it’s really bad to laugh, the urge can literally become uncontrollable. Laughing here, now, so close to this bat, would have been really bad. My lips tightened into one very strained grin, and I was grateful then to be facing the wall so it couldn’t be seen.
I can’t really make you understand how hard I clamped down on that snicker in my throat except to say that I was immensely proud afterward that it didn’t erupt right into that poor bat’s face. When the spasm of mirth relented somewhat, I placed a cup of fingers over it, leaving only a mad bitey scramble between my fingers as its only viable method of escape, the very thing I’d been dreading. Here we go. My fingers moved slowly to pick it up…
…and it kept still, and I plucked it from the wall completely uneventfully. Then it actually crawled into the carrier pouch, and did so eagerly. There was a brief moment of disbelief. Did I just rescue a bat? Again?
“Got it!” I called out, found my pride, and descended like Caesar returning to Rome from war and the crossing of the Rubicon. In my exultation I couldn’t pay attention to the babbling even if I’d wanted to, and Angela was handling it like she was a walking field guide to bats anyway.
Actually, I really have to hand it to Angela. She fielded every question like she’d been asked each one a hundred million times, and even managed to get these two women concerned about the welfare of the bat I captured, and hoping that it would be okay. That was a sentiment that neither of us had expected to hear, and Angela elicited it from two women who were convinced that the bat was trying to kill them in a few minutes.
And with that, we left, and as soon as Angela mentioned that she could see me trying not to laugh up on that ladder, we both completely lost it and spent the drive back quoting the two shopkeepers between convulses of laughter. I wouldn’t want to speak for Angela, but I really needed that.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s okay to not know that bats are about as benign as animals come. The societal preconceptions are old and prevalent, and for many it’s disturbing to believe that the conventional “wisdom” could be so very wrong. To a volunteer at a bat sanctuary, though, it is hilarious. Once you’ve hand fed a few disabled bats and wiped their faces with little bat nappies, you don’t really see the whole Dracula thing anymore.
We pulled into the driveway ready to bring Amanda the bat we’d fetched and share the story of our success when we saw Amanda coming out of the staff entrance to meet us. They’d called again while we were en route, having found another one in the back.
We had to go back, and as we drove we both silently wondered how many bats might really be in that old building that hadn’t yet been seen.