FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- A decades-old issue has come back to roost at Fort Rucker.
A colony of an estimated 2,000-3,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats have taken up temporary residence in the Fort Rucker Physical Fitness Center above the racquetball court locker room, but officials said the new residents do not pose a health threat and won’t cause any change in services at the gym, according to Evy Bludsworth, Directorate of Family, and Morale, Welfare and Recreation director.
“DFMWR is committed to providing the best customer service possible to our Army Community. After discovering the bats in the ceiling over the racquetball courts, we immediately contacted the Directorate of Public Works and environmental health to ensure our patrons and staff were safe,” she said. “DPW sealed off several areas in the gym to protect our patrons and staff, and the bats.
“This will not impact the services MWR provides,” Bludsworth added. “We simply relocated equipment to allow patrons to continue to work out. During this time of COVID 19, we have had to relook at all of our programs and make necessary adjustments in order to provide services to our patrons. It is our honor to do so, while also working to ensure everyone's safety.”
Bats in buildings are nothing new at Fort Rucker, said Joseph Wyka, DPW director, adding that post officials are working closely with U.S. Department of Agriculture personnel – along with medical officials at Lyster Army Health Clinic to ensure the facility is still safe for patrons – on handling the issue that has been present off and on for Fort Rucker for at least 30 years.
Referred to as either the Mexican or Brazilian free-tailed bats, the tadarida brasiensis chose the fitness center because it is a tall building and they like to drop around eight feet when they start their flights, Wyka said, adding they don’t need much of an opening to get in and take advantage of a building.
“All they need is a ¾-inch hole to get in,” he said, adding that all it takes is some cracked caulking or a rusted hole around a vent somewhere on a building. “They’re fairly common in Alabama. They come north to migrate and find a roosting place to raise their young.”
He believes these bats, which are on Alabama’s protected list, worked their way in through the heating and air conditioning ventilation system high on the fitness center and decided that it was a good place to roost while females had their babies.
“During the day, they’re all in there – quiet and minding their own business. Then, during the evening, right about dusk, between 7-8 p.m. or so, the females start to fly out. They eat and drink, and then they come back to nurse their young,” Wyka said, adding that he observed the bats recently around the fitness center. “When the gym lights were turned off at about 8:30 p.m., they came pouring out of there. That’s a good time for that to happen because when the gym lights go off, folks are not running on the track – they’ve gone home for the day.
“You can’t see them inside the building – they’re tucked up into that kind of crawl space above the racquetball court area. You might hear them, but you can’t see them,” he added.
Brazilian free-tailed bats primarily eat insects, including moths, beetles, and flies. They hunt their prey using echolocation and typically catch their prey in flight, according to the National Park Service.
“They’re not bad neighbors to have – they’re good for the ecosystem,” Wyka said. “We’d just prefer they not use our facilities to roost in.
“There aren’t any safety concerns with them being in there,” Wyka added. “We’ve consulted with Lyster officials – they’re part of our pest control team who looks at all of these issues – and they concur that we can keep the main gym open because the bats are limited to the other part of the facility. We monitor it every day to make sure no live animals are getting in there and posing a threat, and to ensure there is no odor.”
But the visitors won’t be around permanently, they just need some time to raise their young so they can take care of themselves, the DPW director said.
“Around the middle of August or so, the young ones will be old enough to fly, and once the young are able to fly they will start feeding for themselves,” he said.
When that time comes, DPW employees will make their move to ensure the colony moves itself along to find a new home, Wyka said.
“When the bats fly out to feed one night, DPW will install the exclusion devices – they kind of look like elephant trunks -- that will allow bats to leave the building, but not re-enter it,” he said. “The bats will go out of the pipe, but they won’t climb back into it. It’s a safe way to do it – it doesn’t kill any animals and it allows them to raise their young, which are beneficial for us in the long run.”
And while DPW personnel will do their best to deter the bats from returning to the fitness center or any other building on post, this probably isn’t the last time the post will have mammals of the flying variety taking up residence in a facility.
“We’ll re-look some of our critical buildings that maybe attract the bats and do everything we can to discourage them from roosting in those places,” he said. “But we can’t guarantee that they’re not going to find a way in. It’s a cyclical, seasonal thing that we’ve dealt with for 30-plus years, and we will probably deal with it forever. We just do our best to keep them out of the buildings that are critical to us.
“We at DPW are patient, but we’re responsive in trying to make sure that facilities are open and ready when customers need them,” Wyka added. “And we’ll keep doing that.”