April 17: Going batty for International Bat Appreciation Day

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My parents saved all my childhood clothes and toys. Ironically, I recently came across my vintage 1970 Batman thermal underwear shirt. Photo/Jen Drociak

MANCHESTER, NH – On a hot, humid summer night in 2005 I had a dream. In my dream I was repetitively shuffling a deck of “Skipbo” playing cards. When I awoke 2:30 a.m. and turned on my table lamp, however, I realized the sound of me shuffling the cards in my dream was the sound of a little brown bat flying around my bedroom and swooping over my head in the dark.

I shrieked, jumped out of bed, and followed the bat out of my bedroom where it flew from the hallway to the bathroom, then to the living room, and then to kitchen trying to escape. I lost sight of it but opened the hallway door (a stairway to the first-floor foyer) hoping it would fly downstairs. I then ran back into my bedroom, closed the door, stuffed thick, terrycloth bath towels underneath, and used my “phone a friend” lifeline to call for help, but reached an answering machine instead.

Given the fact I was audibly fearful of said bat, my friend Eric saved this voice message on his answering machine and still has it to this day nearly 20 years later. In fact, after I told him I was writing this article, he sent me a recording of it. In my defense I was fearful but calm; not shrieking as this urban legend would have it!

For the remainder of the night I (barely) slept with my lamp on, one eye open, and my ears on full alert for the sound of flapping wings and high-pitched vocalizations. The next day, when I could not find the bat anywhere, Eric came over and was also unsuccessful in finding it. However, when he followed me downstairs to feed “Downstairs Jenn’s” cat (who was out of town at the time) and I placed Finnegan’s bowl of food on the floor, Eric whispered “JEN! DO NOT MOVE! THE BAT IS ON THE WALL RIGHT ABOVE YOUR HEAD!”

I shrieked again, ran into her bathroom, and closed the door. Of course, the bat then flew around, and we lost track of it AGAIN. By this time, I just ran upstairs, shut my door, and felt a sigh of relief that the bat was downstairs and not upstairs. Don’t worry, I immediately called Downstairs Jenn to inform her she would be returning home to a bat somewhere in her apartment, which she found on her living room drapes, cradled it in a towel, and brought outside.

That was not the last of the bats in the house.

It took me a while to determine where they were coming in from, which was a tiny gap between my kitchen wall and the vintage fiberboard ceiling tiles (the attic is above me), which I sealed. Several years later, after continuing to hear them scurry in the attic and in the eaves of the house at dusk, I had a humane exclusion performed which sent them to my neighbor’s attic instead. Anyway, don’t get me wrong. I like bats. They’re cool. I just don’t like them swooping over my head while I’m alone in bed in the middle of the night. That’s not cool. 

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The infamous bat signal on the east-facing side of the clock tower. Photo/Jen Drociak

Which brings me to a full-circle moment nearly 20 years later. In February, not knowing if my 20-something-year-old fire extinguishers in the house were still good, I drove to the City of Manchester Fire Department Station 5 on Webster Street and rang the doorbell with a fire extinguisher in my hand (which incidentally matched my red winter hat and boots). I was greeted by Captain Pete Franggos, who immediately welcomed me into the foyer to answer my questions. Was it still good? (It is still “full.”) Would it still work? (Maybe. Maybe not.) Should I buy replacements? (To air on the side of caution, yes.) Should I buy the same kind (yes.) How do I dispose of the old ones (at the Drop-Off Facility for a fee of $5 per extinguisher.) But, as I am known to always ask a lot of questions and have been mistaken for a reporter before, I said “I have one more burning question, no pun intended, but can you tell me the history of the bat signal on the east-facing side of the clock tower?” I consider this fire station more-or-less in my general neighborhood and walk by it frequently, so have always been curious as to its origin. 

Captain Franggos laughed and told me that when he started working at Station 5 in 1988 the bedrooms of the previous fire station were on the south side of the second floor near the clock tower, and there were A LOT of bats who also considered that area their bedroom. He said there were so many bats that there were tennis rackets hung on the walls to swat at them, and they informally started calling the station “The Bat House” and made the bat their informal station mascot. In fact, he said that he was recently awakened in the middle of the night to a bat swooping over his head. He screamed and called for assistance. The other firefighter blanketed the bat with a towel, and they both went downstairs and let the bat out. However, he said they were then accidentally locked outside in the middle of the night in their sleepwear (I’ll leave it at that). Captain Franggos said he’s seen a lot of terrifying things in his career as a firefighter but joked that this was the most terrifying. It seems even the bravest of the brave can be startled and scared by bats!  

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Dang, these men mean business when it comes to the station mascot! Photo/Jen Drociak

According to the City of Manchester website for Station 5, “In June 1993, a new Station 5 opened that was architecturally designed to resemble the old station. It features a clock tower that has two sides that have blank, round, white windows which are decorated during holidays. During Halloween one year, it was decorated with a bat which the members thought resembled the bat signal from the television show “Batman.” This gave birth to their mascot, the Batman symbol.” Captain Franggos said that the newer generation of firefighters installed the bat signal based on the history of bat stories from the older generation of firefighters that preceded them, and from there a formal station mascot of a bat was born. In fact, “The Bat House” with accompanying bat emblem is now on the side of the Engine 5 firetruck (which is currently being serviced) and some cool T-shirts. 

In “Batman,” the bat signal is used by the Gotham City Police Department as a method of letting Batman know when the city needs his help. Like Batman, the firefighters at the Manchester Fire Department throughout the city and not just at the Station 5 “Bat House” are always watching out for our safety and responding to us when we need their help. It’s been an absolute pleasure getting to know them and the important work they do. 

These men are awesome! From left, Firefighter Mark Brighman, Firefighter Adam Egounis, Captain Pete Franggos, Deputy Chief David Flurey. Photo/Jen Drociak

I thanked Captain Franggos for his time and departed. However, I found myself returning four days later because I had an idea. I hesitantly rang the doorbell again, wondering how many people ring it once, let alone twice in one week. This time he graciously invited me inside their living quarters, to which they were making a full breakfast of bacon, eggs, fruit, and more. I thanked him for his assistance on Wednesday and gave the crew of three a fresh-out-of-the-oven batch of vegan ginger molasses cookies with bat decor on them that I made. I then mentioned I wanted to write a story of the history of the bat signal on the clock tower and accompany it with bat conservation in New Hampshire for International Bat Appreciation Day on April 17.

Each year on April 17, International Bat Appreciation Day reminds us of the important roles bats play in nature. April is also the best time of the year to observe bats, as they begin to emerge from hibernation. Captain Franggos laughed but liked the idea and said he’d run it by Chief Ryan Cashin (who also liked the idea and approved). Finding out through our conversation that Captain Franggos was also Alderman (and former Manchester fire chief) Jim Burkush’s cousin, I contacted Alderman Burkush and asked if he wouldn’t mind letting Captain Franggos know that I am not a complete lunatic (a.k.a “bat shit crazy” as one would say)! I’m just a creative gal with creative ideas.

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A little brown bat. US Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo/Ann Froschauer

Bat Facts: 

Bats are the only species of mammals that can truly fly (a “Flying” Squirrel glides). They are typically nocturnal, meaning they sleep during the day and fly at dusk to forage for insects. There are more than 1,300 species of bats in the world. New Hampshire is home to eight bat species, our most common being the little brown bat and big brown bat. Some bats use echolocation, or high-pitched chirps which bounce off objects in front of them, to find their way in the dark (and insects to forage on). During the summer, most bats spend their time in trees, under bridges, or in old buildings where they roost (females only produce 1-2 pups a year). During the winter, five of New Hampshire’s species hibernate (November – April) where they lower their temperature, metabolism, and breathing rate and become immobile, whereas three of New Hampshire’s species migrate south for the winter. Their natural predators are owls when bats are flying at night and raccoons and ravens if they find bats roosting. Believe it or not, bats can reach a lifespan of around 20 years old in the wild! However, because of certain threats, all of New Hampshire’s bat species are listed as Endangered, Threatened, or as a Species of Special Concern. 

Why Are Bats Important?

Since bats are considered insectivores, they rid our world of many pestilent insects. One little brown bat can eat 60 medium-sized moths or over 1,000 mosquito-sized insects in one night! Another way of looking at it is that a bat can eat 50% of their body weight each night, and even more if they are a female with pups. Imagine eating half of your body weight every night for dinner?! A recent analysis of the value of pest control services provided by bats was at least $3.7 billion a year. In many ecosystems, bats also play a key role in pollinating plants. 

Threats to New Hampshire Bats

  • White-Nose Syndrome: White-Nose Syndrome (WNS), documented in New Hampshire in 2009, is named for the white fungus that appears on the muzzle and wings of affected bats while they are hibernating during the winter. The fungus causes the bats to wake more frequently which burns up their limited energy reserves and can lead to possible starvation and death. Cave-hibernating bats in New Hampshire have been decimated by WNS. Over 5.7 million bats have died prior to 2012 in the northeast to WNS alone. 
  • Loss of Habitat: Bats require suitable habitat for foraging, roosting, and hibernating. These can all be impacted by human activities such as development and loss of forested habitat.  
  • Wind Energy Facilities (Turbines): Wind turbines can kill large numbers of bats while either foraging in nearby habitat or migrating to hibernate. Bats can die by either being hit directly by the blades or by barotrauma, where the changing air pressure caused by the moving blade can cause their blood vessels to rupture.  

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Conservation: How You Can Help

  • Let Them Use Your Barn: Allow bats to exist where they have for centuries – in your barn (or carriage house, or garage, etc.). Big and little brown bats particularly like structures where they can form large maternity colonies in a hot environment that helps their pups grow quickly. 
  • Do Not Disturb: To reduce the likelihood of harming bats, avoid any disturbance near a known maternity roost tree from mid-May through mid-August and conduct timber harvests when bats are hibernating (October 31 to April 1). In winter, stay out of caves and mines. Bats are very sensitive to disturbances and will come out of hibernation when humans enter their space which uses up critical energy reserves. 
  • Follow Best Practices to Keep Them Out: If you want to remove bats from your attic, you or a licensed wildlife control operator can create an exclusion. This is a safe, effective, and humane way to evict them by using one-way doors that let the bats fly out but not back in. Be sure not to exclude bats from mid-May through mid-August when pups cannot yet fly and will get trapped in the space. The best time to do so is after mid-August when they usually leave to seek a safe place to spend the winter. After they have left, you can seal up the holes and create a new colony space with a large bat house outdoors. 

Maintain or Enhance Habitat: Bats use forests in spring, summer, and fall. They need a source of water, an area to forage, and large trees for roosting. You can help by providing a landscape with these elements. Protect both occupied and potential tree roosts which typically have cavities, crevices, loose/shedding bark, and larger diameters. 

  • Install a Bat House: If designed correctly and put in the right place, bat houses can be substitutes for maternity colonies in buildings. However, to work best, they must be large enough, placed on a building near the roof on the southeast or south side exposed to sun, and painted with a dark exterior. There are some differing opinions on bat houses so be sure to do your research before building or purchasing and installing one. 
  • Conduct a Bat Count: Since New Hampshire’s two most common bats (little brown and big brown) use buildings as summer roosts, monitoring their “maternity colonies” can provide biologists with an idea of how bat populations in the area are doing from year to year. 

If a Bat Accidentally Gets into Your House

First, try not to panic like myself or Captain Franggos. Bats want to be in a hot, dark, and quiet space, not your living quarters. If they accidentally get in, open any outside windows and doors to the room where the bat is and leave the room, closing the interior doors behind you and turning off the lights. They will soon find their way outdoors. Do not touch them with your bare hands. 

Not many bats have rabies, but if you find a bat in a room with a sleeping person or young child, it is best to be cautious. Call your doctor and/or the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services Bureau of Infectious Diseases at (603) 271-4496. Do not relocate the bat as it can be tested for rabies if you have it. 

Sources / For More Information: 

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Station 5 “Bat Signal” as seen at night. Photo/Jen Drociak


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About this Author

Jen Drociak

Jen Drociak (a.k.a “Jenchester” by her close friends), lives in Manchester, is a member of the Manchester Heritage Commission, a trustee of the Manchester Historic Association, and coordinates the Manchester Urban Ponds Restoration Program (https://www.facebook.com/ManchesterUrbanPondsRestoration/). She is a Union Leader “40 Under 40” honoree (class of 2011), Graduate of Leadership Greater Manchester (class of 2022), and WZID “Outstanding Woman” honoree (class of 2023). Jen has a degree in Environmental Conservation (and works at the NH Department of Environmental Services) and a Certificate in Photography from the New Hampshire Institute of Art. Her photography can be found at https://jdrociak.wixsite.com/jendrociak and three photographs can be seen as wrap-around art on the city’s new solar-powered compacting trash cans on Elm Street. She loves all things wonderfully weird, is a Brady Bunch fanatic, and loves street sweepers (her harbinger of spring and best management practice for cleaner water!).