I remember the woodpecker. It was pounding away in a high-up corner of the house for several days. We’d just moved in and I had no idea what to do. Yelling “shoo” was getting me nowhere.
But by the time I got around to buying a water gun —
Fast-forward seven years, to the summer of 2013, when we were terrorized by bats and saved by Bat Man. Now that we’ll never forget.
The first bat showed up on a humid night in late July. I was at work and got a call from my husband, who was home with our two kids, a 5-year-old and a 4-month-old. “We’ve had an exciting night. Harper found a bat.” It was hanging onto the edge of our magazine basket, next to the stone fireplace. She showed her dad, and he got it outside. Had it sneaked in when he went out to flip his burger?
The next night, as the heat wave continued, the four of us were snuggled on the couch, watching TV in the dark. The kids were dozing, my husband was drowsy. I saw something drop from the fireplace down to that basket. I nudged my husband, whisked the kids off to bed. Another bat. The hope that one had flown in on a fluke was fading.
The next morning, the dog was growling and sniffing in that thinnest of spaces between the fridge and the cabinet. What could it be? Anything, really. A dust bunny? A lost toy? Runaway Cheerios? Pull the fridge out, squint, poke, shiver.
That night found another flying around our great room, my husband stalking it with a butterfly net, and me and the kids cowering in the car in the garage, waiting for the all-clear.
Time to get help.
For the record, I understand that bats are wonderful because they eat many, many insects. I know they are more afraid of us than we are of them. I know that they aren’t rodents, that it is statistically unlikely they have rabies, and that there’s a tremendous amount of concern about some species of bats being wiped-out by white-nose syndrome. In the moment, though, I find it hard to feel compassion toward a creature that is not particularly cute and is flying around the room in a pattern that, while mesmerizing to watch in the backyard, appears scarily erratic inside.
I Googled “bat removal” and the name of our New Hampshire town and called the number on the first site that came up, one for Suburban Wildlife Control LLC . Bob Noviello answered the call. He was on another job but lived in town and would come by that evening.
When he pulled in, I felt saved. His license plate is BAT MAN. He takes care of all kinds of pests — squirrels, flying squirrels, skunks, raccoons, mice, insects — but this time of year, bats keep him busy. He’s a former Wildlife Services biologist with the US Department of Agriculture who went into business for himself 16 years ago.
The first thing he wanted to see was the attic of our half-1860s farmhouse/half-1999-modern-addition home. It’s a little creepy up in the 150-year-old attic, which we use only for storage. It got creepier when Noviello came down and said there’s plenty of bat guano (that’s poop, folks) and we have ourselves a problem with big brown bats .
Holy horror, Bat Man! Help!
Noviello said he would. For $1,800 he would exclude bats from our house. The figure, high because our house is sizable, took my breath away until I looked down at the infant in my arms. Worth every cent. If we found a bat in one of the kids’ bedrooms, we’d have to put them through a round of notoriously painful rabies shots if we weren’t able to catch the bat and get it tested. It would feel irresponsible not to have the work done.
Excluding bats can be tricky, and there are rules. From early May to early August, there may be flightless pups waiting for their mothers to return. If the maternal bats can’t get back to their young to nurse them, the juveniles will die. Because of this, exclusion is supposed to take place in the spring or fall. But I was feeling maternal myself, so our bat exclusion had to be done in early August, leaving not much of a cushion for any straggler pups that might not have started flying. Thankfully, Noviello understood. Waiting is OK if you’re pro-bat, he said, “but not if you have a new baby.”
The rules vary by state. In New Hampshire, exclusion is not allowed in unoccupied buildings between May 15 and Aug. 15, and it’s strongly recommended that homeowners don’t exclude bats during that time, either, according to Emily Preston, a New Hampshire Fish and Game biologist. In a homeowners’ guide to bats found on its website, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs tells homeowners that with few exceptions, attempts to evict bats should be made only in “the early spring, during the month of May, or in late summer, from the first of August to mid-October.”
Noviello returned a few days later with a motorized lift on wheels and an employee. They spent half a day going up and down in that lift and on ladders, filling in cracks and crevices with a black sealant. They installed two one-way chutes at what Noviello believed were the main access points into the attic, one of them being that corner where the woodpecker had laid out the bat welcome mat.
Noviello explained to me recently that bats find their way into attics by sitting on the edge of a roof and feeling for a change in pressure. “Much like a spelunker lights a torch to determine airflow,” he said. All they need is an opening that’s half an inch wide. Over time, bats leave their scent on the entrance, an imprint that keeps them coming back year after year. The one-way mesh chutes extend that entrance, and because the tube is a porous mesh, the airflow goes every which way, leaving the bats no environmental cue. Where the mesh chute meets the house, there’s a flap door that will open to let the bats out, but won’t let them in. They get frustrated and move on.
For a week after the work was done, we stayed with family. Who wants to be around frustrated bats? Plus, they were getting into our living space somehow, and we didn’t know how many more were lurking, unable to find a way out.
We were feeling pretty good about things when we moved back in. For a week there was no sign of bats. But two weeks in, I reached into the dark, soapy water in a pot I’d left soaking in the sink overnight, and my finger briefly brushed something soft. I dumped out the water and saw a dark clump go with it. It made a heinous chirping sound as it landed in the sink. A bat, and it was alive! I covered it with the pot and backed away.
By now we were experts. My husband donned leather work gloves and brought the bat outside. I called Noviello. He said it was drawn to water out of thirst. It probably hadn’t been outside since before the exclusion. He thought that would be the last of it.
He was right.
Noviello suspected our string of bat encounters was connected to the heat wave. The bats were trying to escape the extreme heat in the attic (they like heat and it helps their pups grow, but extreme heat can affect their daily torpor) and might have been coming in through recessed lighting, perhaps, or via the many other gaps one can expect to find in antique houses. It’s also possible the ones in our house were juveniles, just starting to fly, and they got lost.
I asked Preston whether it’s hard to get people to feel sympathetic toward bats because they aren’t very cute. She begs to differ. “They’re so cute,” she said, encouraging me to watch how they fly, how masterful they are, and to appreciate the intricacies of their wings.
“People are scared because they’re taught to be scared,” she said, adding that bats won’t fly into someone’s hair, the idea of which terrifies many. “One might fly by your head to eat an insect,” Preston said, “and for that, you should say, ‘Thank you.’ ”
Because I have something akin to bat PTSD, I asked Noviello to come back to the house this summer to look for signs of winged life. He found none. He then “shut us down” by removing the mesh chutes and permanently closing those main access points.
So what happens to the bats once they’re evicted?
“They’re going to go to your neighbor’s house, and you’re going to tell them what a good job I did, and I’m going to go there,” Noviello said laughing.
I wondered, what spooks a bat man? “Falling off a ladder is my biggest fear. . . . And bees.” Bats, though, don’t bother him. And thanks to him, they don’t bother me anymore, either.