Night hikes are a great way to explore the out-of-doors as hikers are often treated to the unique sounds of the night from great horned owls hooting in the spring to a bugling elk in the fall. The chance to view wildlife such as a flying bat is an incredible opportunity and should not be a cause for alarm. Bats are passive, shy mammals that prefer to avoid contact with humans. All species of bats found in Montana feed exclusively on insects and are extremely valuable in controlling insect pests that transmit diseases such as West Nile Virus. A single little brown bat can consume 1200 mosquitoes in one hour.
Montana has 15 species of bats (see the Montana Field Guide for more details). Some bats live in groups while others are solitary. Some species roost in dwellings if access is available while others prefer trees and caves. Bats at the Lewis and Clark Caverns usually arrive in April and leave after the first frost in the fall- usually September.
Bats have good eyesight but because they hunt in the dark, have a special adaptation to assist them in finding prey, eco-location. Eco-location is a form of biological radar used by bats to locate insect prey. It is not uncommon for a bat to fly towards an item that has been thrown up into the air thinking it may be prey. Rarely will a bat approach a human. Perhaps the best opportunity to view a bat in flight is to look for them at dusk near a lake, stock pond, or river where they come for water and to feed on newly hatched insects.
One of the main concerns people have with bats is the chance that they may be carrying rabies. You can't get rabies from a live bat flying by you in the air, or by simply touching the fur or skin of a dead bat. In order for a bat to transfer the disease to a human their saliva must enter into the person's blood stream, typically through a bite. In North America, people usually get rabies from bats by being bitten, either while handling a sick bat, or from being bitten while they were sleeping. For this reason if you find a bat on the ground, leave it alone, or use a coffee can and piece of cardboard to trap it and move it away from pets and kids. If you accidentally "catch" a feeding bat while fly fishing, wear thick leather gloves while handling the bat to free it. Bats trapped in your summer cabin will usually leave on their own if you open a door or window for them. Bats found in the bedroom of a person who is a sound sleeper should always be captured and submitted for rabies testing through your local doctor or public health service. In most cases rabies shots will be NOT be necessary, since less than 10% of Montana bats submitted for testing have rabies.
For more information about bats and rabies check out the Montana Department of Health and Social Service's Web site .