The name of the bat

Graham Dukes makes the case for the fluttermouse.

Whatever one’s world view, one can hardly avoid having a sneaking respect for creation.  The old seven-volume Taxonomy of the Animal World, that has graced our bookcase for years, is reason enough for that.  I shall never digest more than a tiny fraction of it, but I can still admire the industrious Danes who put it together three generations ago; systematically they guide me down through the Kingdoms recognized by the great Linnaeus, via classes, orders, genera, species and ending up with several million varieties, still more of which continue to come into view as the years go by. Taxonomy is all so admirably systematic…and yet?

Here and there I am left with a puzzle.  I would not venture to suggest that creation ever became muddled, but I do wonder whether a touch of mischief was not scattered around during the process to amuse or puzzle people like myself and possibly to confound the honest taxonomists as well.

Take the jellyfish: an animal with no heart or brain and looking rather like an underwater cauliflower, albeit housing a vicious sting.  Or, for that matter the scorpion; to all appearances a friendly little lobster, yet one that creeps through deserts in the summer and into cracks in domestic brickwork when the winter comes, lurking there to bite the incautious sleeper.  But there are more pleasant puzzles too. Take the bat.

The English language has not been overly kind to the bat.  Its very name is one that can only be spat out contemptuously.  The French designation is more graceful – hirondelle de nuit or “swallow of the night” is about as poetic as you can get.  Nor does Germany do badly;  fledermaus (“fluttermouse”) is something of a caricature, but a friendly one;  the little mammal is not a mouse at all, but it most certainly flutters as it climbs through trees in the twilight,  though it goes on to glide down with much elegance.  An old Cornish rhyme speaks of the “airy mouse” but that seems to be as far as England gets in the way of bat-friendly terminology..

Quite apart from the name, the English population of bats suffers from a preponderance of negative human sentiments ranging from vague dislike to positive dread.  Will they fly into my hair? (Answer: No) Will they bite me and leave me with rabies? (Answer: Not on this side of the world.)  And can one really be at ease with an animal that perversely goes to sleep hanging upside-down?  (Answer: Why not?)   Nor has fiction been complimentary. Shakespeare’s witches mixed bat’s fur into their evil potions; Bram Stoker’s unpleasant Count Dracula could transform himself into a bat at will; and bat symbols have crossed the Atlantic to embroider the spooky appurtenances of an imported Halloween.

It is all most unfair to bats.  Suppose – just suppose – that, far from devising the bat merely to tease the taxonomists, creation intended it to fulfil a major role on earth?  Then stop supposing and consider whether that might not be more or less true, with man merely dominating the daylight hours, leaving the bat to be the true lord of the twilight?  Are we not in a sense complementary beings?  Man is troubled by mosquitoes and gnats, but a bat with a healthy appetite will obligingly gobble up hundreds of these unpleasant insects in an hour; man plants crops and the bat provides them with nutritious guano; man  delights in flowers and various members of the bat family are as industrious as the bee in pollinating them.  And bats, far from being batty, are bright and ingenious; they know how to scoop up all the water they need merely by skimming across a pond.  On the way they may pick up the occasional fish for dinner.  Could you?  And when it comes to infant care, the lady bat breastfeeds with the best and keeps her young in a nursery. Blind as a bat, did someone say?  A little myopic, maybe, but the average bat has perfectly good eyes for twilight performance, while around the clock its supersonic echo detection system still beats radar into fits.

Let more of us, then, rally around the bat; it suffers from lack of understanding and it has declined in numbers much too far for its own good or ours. There are opportunities. Scores of abandoned railway tunnels now provide a refuge for as many bats as care to inhabit them – dark, attractively damp and on a Sunday morning much less disruptive of a bat’s daytime slumber than the proverbial belfry.   You can buy a kit to build a neat bat house at the bottom of your garden. Bats in Britain are, very properly, protected by the law, and the Bat Conservation Trust is there to guide you, recruit your support, and to devise ways to prevent bat flocks from colliding with wind farms (supersonic whistles?) or succumbing to pesticides. One day, I privately trust, society may even choose to adjust the linguistic side of things as well. A better name could make quite a difference.  Fluttermouse, perhaps. Or Night Swallow, if your prefer. Or, quite simply, Twilighter.  Think about it. We need to be nicer to our bats, whatever we choose to call them. If we are, the bats themselves will experience in the long run that the world has become a kindlier place, with people smiling rather than shuddering as they flutter by.

The bats may even, in some way known only to themselves, be grateful.

Photo credit: Bechstein’s Bat (Myotis bechsteinii) – Sam Dyer Ecology.

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