Bats are mysterious, misunderstood, and sometimes maligned. It may come as a surprise to learn that these cryptic creatures comprise almost a third of Australia’s mammal diversity, and fulfil a remarkable range of ecological roles. Fruit Bats, or Flying Foxes, (Megachiroptera) are critical to pollination and dispersal of many Australian trees, and help grow forests wherever they go. Microbats (Microchiroptera), on the other hand, are important predators and play a significant role in controlling the abundance of mosquitoes and other flying insects.
Throughout much of Australia, rapid population growth and urban expansion have decimated the native forests that provide habitat for many of our bats. As a consequence, a number of species once present around our major cities are vanishing.
Never before have our gardens been more important for protecting native bats, and with four simple steps, you can help preserve bats in your backyard.
Restore the roosts
Although some Microbat species roost in caves, Fruit Bats roost in forest trees, hanging from the branches, often in large groups. There are also many forest-dwelling species of Microbat, who roost in tree hollows. Unfortunately, apart from some very old remnant trees, most trees in Australia’s cities and suburbs lack the crucial hollows used by microbats. Eucalypts are the best trees for hollow-forming and, although councils and people are beginning to get better at planting these native trees, the hollows take a long time to form. A great way to remedy this problem is to install bat boxes in your yard. You can purchase a bat box from indigenous nurseries specialised local producers or even from some Men’s Sheds – or make your own! Fix your bat box at head height or above, and because bats like to use different roosting sites at different times of the year it’s a good idea to install a few boxes around your yard.
You’ll know your bat box has residents when you start to notice droppings beneath it, so keep an eye out for this once it’s installed.
Bring on a buffet
Now that you’ve provided housing, it’s time to offer some food. Microbats and Fruit Bats, though related, have very different diets. Fruit Bats feed on flowers, leaves and fruit, while Microbats prefer insects. The best way to provide food for the bats that may visit your garden is to plant the right trees. Those with large fruits or floral clusters, preferably white, with plenty of pollen and nectar, are best. A few excellent native trees to plant are Paperbarks (Melaleuca spp.), Red Bloodwoods (Corymbia gummifera), and Native Figs (Ficus spp.). Paperbarks are spread across Australia, while Red Bloodwoods are naturally present along the east coast from Victoria up to Queensland, and Native Figs occur throughout the tropics and subtropics. The pale blooms of Red Bloodwoods and Paperbarks also attract nocturnal pollinators like moths, which in turn bring in the microbats, who feed on them.
Clear a flight path
An often overlooked factor to consider when building a bat-friendly garden is the availability of flight paths. If the upper storey of your garden is too dense, it will be challenging for bats to feed and roost in your garden, especially Fruit Bats, which are clumsier in flight compared to the agile Microbats. Do your best to ensure the roosting and feeding sites you provide are open and unobscured by dense vegetation.
Make your backyard bat-safe
Finally, it’s important to prevent bats dying in your yard. The most common causes of death are entrapment in netting and cat attacks. People commonly net their fruit trees to prevent birds getting to their garden produce, but birds and also Fruit Bats often become tangled in this netting and die. An alternative to netting is to individually cover the fruits with transparent plastic bags. The bags will let light through to ripen your fruit but will prevent hungry bats from becoming entangled.
If you feel you have to net your trees, choose your netting carefully and ensure it’s correctly installed. Holes should be small enough that you can’t fit your finger through and the net should be good quality and stretched taut. It’s ideal to do some thorough research before installing netting.
To prevent bats falling victim to cats, the simplest way is to keep your cats indoors. In reality, cats should always be kept indoors as it’s much safer for both the cat, and our native wildlife.
Now that you know how, why not start transforming your garden into a haven for native bats? You’ll be helping reverse their urban decline, and you may even get a chance to see them roosting and feeding once they take up residence. All it takes is the right plants and a bat box or two.
Banner image courtesy of Justin Welbergen [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.