Silent Night?

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The Bat

The bat is dun with wrinkled Wings –

Like fallow Article –

And not a song pervades his Lips –

Or none perceptible.

His small Umbrella, quaintly halved

Describing in the Air

An Arc alike inscrutable

Elate Philosopher!

Deputed from what Firmament –

Of what Astute Abode –

Empowered with what malignity

Auspiciously withheld –

To his adroit Creator

Ascribe no less the praise –

Beneficent, believe me,

His eccentricities –

Oddly, or perhaps characteristically, Emily Dickinson’s poem of 1876 (And not a song pervades his Lips/Or none perceptible) predates the scientific discovery of bats’ ultrasonic echolocation calls by many decades. She also notes (Elate Philosopher!) that bats can be a useful tool for thinking with. In The Blind Watchmaker Richard Dawkins uses bats as a powerful, and I think convincing, argument against Intelligent Design, and observes, almost in passing, about bat calls, ‘It is fortunate that we can’t hear them, incidentally, for they are immensely powerful and would be deafeningly loud if we could hear them, and impossible to sleep through.’ Thomas Nagel, in his essay ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ first published in The Philosophical Review in October 1974, and reprinted in his collection Mortal Questions (1979) set the terms, albeit controversially, for philosophical debate about subjectivity, the mind-body problem and the nature of consciousness. And more poetically, Diane Ackerman’s essay ‘In Praise of Bats’, recounting a visit to a Texan bat cave with the photographer and bat enthusiast Merlin Tuttle, inspired a new movement for bat conservation in the US.

So what do we think about bats? For most people, I suspect, the answer is ‘nothing at all’. But these are animals which, if we could hear and see them, would be as familiar to us as starlings or magpies. There might be a lingering thought of vampires, inspired by Bram Stoker’s unexpectedly excellent book Dracula (one of the bat calls in the embedded sound was, in that book’s honour, recorded in the grounds of Whitby Abbey). In fact the nearest things we have to vampires in this country, the mosquito and other blood-sucking insects, are the main prey of our wholly insectivorous bat fauna. There might also be, during the pandemic, a sense of bats being reservoirs of zoonotic disease, although very few of us will ever come close enough to a bat for that to be an issue. And as for them getting tangled in your hair, a bat ecologist once remarked ‘I wish! It would make my job a lot easier.’

Accompanying this post is an audio compilation of various bat calls, mostly made from my bedroom window, lowered in pitch and slowed down, to give you a sense of how thoroughly unsilent the night would be, if only we had ears to hear it. Your first port of call in terms of books should be Tessa Laird’s Bat, a brilliant survey of bat science, tradition, folklore, art and legend. And click here to see a selection of books mentioned in the blog, and some others that might help you think about, and with, these remarkable creatures.

Order David’s bat book selection via our online store.