In rural New Mexico where I live, it’s not unusual to rise early every morning to feed and water the chickens, collect eggs, and clean out the chicken coop. But I don’t know of anyone besides myself who brings 15 chickens into their home each night. Of course, I don’t know anyone else who lives with vampire bats.
That’s what I’ve been doing for almost a year now. At my fledgling Rancho Transylvania – New Mexico Bat Research Institute in tiny Tijeras, New Mexico, I am housing a colony of 12 white-winged vampire bats (Diaemus youngi). These members of a little-studied species, whose numbers appear to be declining, were imported with great difficulty from the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad, where they faced almost certain death.
My little colony seems to be thriving. One female, Maria, was pregnant when she arrived in New Mexico and gave birth to Amelia last November. A second pup, a male, was conceived in captivity and born in April. These are the first of their species known to have been born in captivity. I am now keeping males and females separated while developing a harmless marking system so lineage can be tracked and inbreeding prevented.
The 10 wild white-wings were collected for me by Southampton College Professor William Schutt. A bat specialist and one of the few biologists who have studied white-winged vampires, Schutt knew exactly where to find them. He went to their food source: birds, in this case around chicken coops, where the animals are frequently caught and destroyed. Longtime BCI member Susan Barnard, a veteran zookeeper of Atlanta, Georgia, was instrumental in getting the vampires through the maze of import rules and restrictions.
The species is under severe attack in Trinidad because of its habit of feeding on chickens. It also suffers from widespread habitat loss. Our goal was to establish a breeding colony and educate the public about these fascinating and grossly misunderstood mammals.
Only three of the more than 1,100 species of bats worldwide are vampires, and all three live only in Latin America, where people spend a lot of time and effort eradicating them (and killing countless beneficial, non-vampire bats in the process).
All three vampire species subsist only on blood. The white-winged and hairy-legged (Diphylla ecaudata) vampires feed only on birds, and both are rarely seen or studied. The common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) has increased its numbers by often feeding on cattle and does pose a problem for ranchers.
As blood feeders, vampires are very well equipped. Their teeth are free of enamel and sharpen themselves as they occlude (when the teeth come together as the animal closes its mouth). Vampires on the ground achieve a four-footed gait with their robust arms and legs and padded thumbs, which they use as front feet. Extremely agile, they run and jump nimbly.
In the wild, white-wings are arboreal hunters that creep up on their sleeping hosts from the underside of tree trunks and branches. Their eyes are large and piercing. The skin on their wing tips and first digit is not pigmented, earning them their common name.
White-wings are unique in having large oral glands in their cheeks, which inflate when threatened and emit a skunk-like odor.
The “Rancho” part of our name was inspired by the colony’s food source: live chickens. About 150 chickens were donated (rescued) from a large egg farm in Albuquerque, where they had been de-beaked and kept in small cages for their entire lives, which would have been rather short. After two years, when their egg production declines, the chickens are transformed into feathers and chicken meal.
I adopted these featherless, painfully thin, de-beaked chickens that had never seen the light of day and brought them to their new home with sunshine, spacious coops, and … well, the occasional blood donation. Most of the chickens recovered nicely. Now they chase moths, take dust baths, and bask in the sun.
They are offered to the bats nightly at a ratio of one hen per bat, with each hen serving just one night a week at the vampire hotel. The bats sneak up on the chickens, make a small incision by biting them (usually around the toes), then lap up the blood with their grooved tongues. The vampires sometimes make a sound like that of baby chicks, which seems to calm the birds.
The chickens usually sleep right through the bloodletting, and in the morning, they are returned to the coop for protein-rich food and fresh water with iron supplements.
Meanwhile, my house, an eight-bedroom fixer-upper, is being transformed into the Youngblood Bed and Breakfast – a place where people can come, stay, eat lots of egg dishes, and help care for the vampires.