Flying in Plain Sight: The Bats of Central Park

D. Bruce Yolton

There’s nothing spookier than a shrinking urban ecosystem. As cities around the country continue to lose tree cover and vegetation, the wildlife that depend on these lush, verdant spaces must seek what few greener pastures remain. While these diminishing habitats—plus the existential threats of climate change and species die-off—make for the start of a good horror film, hope remains in Central Park, especially for its bats.

Nine species of bats live in New York State, and Central Park’s 843 acres of sprawling meadows, woodlands, and water bodies play a crucial role in their health. In celebration of this year's Bat Week (and every week!) the Central Park Conservancy celebrates these often-misunderstood creatures for the environmental powerhouses that they are.

The eastern red bat nestles against the bark of a tree in Central Park. Common in North America, this bat’s breeding season starts in autumn each year. Video courtesy of D. Bruce Yolton at Urban Hawks.

Ruling the roost

Originating around 55 million years ago, bats are the second largest order of mammals on the planet, known as Chiroptera. This Ancient Greek term translates roughly to “hand wing,” which is a surprisingly timeless description of a bat’s leathery, skeletal wings. Indeed, bats are curious looking creatures. Distinguished by their pig and foxlike noses, furry bodies, and propensity to hang upside down, they tend to look sillier than they do scary.

According to Conservancy Guide Ryan Schmidt, the bats we see in Central Park are divided into two main groups: tree-roosting and cave-roosting. As their name would suggest, cave-roosting bats “stay in the same general location all year and hibernate in the winter, surviving off of fat reserves,” Ryan says. “Nest boxes or bat houses are commonly used to help encourage bat nesting and big brown and little brown bats are the ones that most commonly use them in the Northeast.”

Tree-roosting bats, of course, prefer to roost in trees. Ryan’s favorite tree-roosting bats in the Park are eastern red bats, hoary bats, and silver-haired bats. “These are the main bats we are likely to see in Central Park because they migrate south in the winter to warmer areas” and as they roost in trees are "more likely to be spotted during the daytime if someone has a keen eye.”

A hoary bat hanging from a branch beneath a canopy of green leaves

Just hanging out! This hoary bat is seen dangling from the branches of a Central Park tree. To many visitors, bats can be mistaken for birds and even leaves.

Bats to bat your eyes at

From afar, bats are often mistaken for birds—a reasonable reaction to the only mammal capable of sustained flight. Danielle Gustafson, who leads Central Park bat walks with the New York City Bat Group and serves on the Board of Directors for Bat Conservation International, says this is a common mistake. “We consider these walks to be a magic trick because we take New Yorkers into their own park and show them the bats that have been directly over their heads this whole time,” Danielle says.

Like birdwatching, developing an eye for bats just takes practice. “Often when we start our walks,” she explains, “there are chimney swifts [swallow-like birds] flying above, feasting on a giant cluster of insects up there.” As it gets dark, however, a “changing of the guard” takes place and “that's when the bats take over.” Beginner bat-watchers can start by looking for these chimney swift birds at dusk, and then the bats that follow as the night goes on.

For those more interested in daytime bat-watching, Danielle suggests looking up to the trees. “There’s a big green tree in the Park from which this eastern red bat would hang from one foot and sway in the breeze. And even though this bat is bright red, it looked just like a desiccated leaf on a stem, blowing in the wind.”

Close up image of a red bat

Occasionally on colder days, visitors to Central Park may come across bats in a state of torpor—this means they are saving their energy and should not be disturbed.

Taking the night shift

While bats are good at flying under the radar, their positive impact can still be seen clearly in Central Park. Like birds, butterflies, and bees, bats too are pollinators, helping to distribute pollen and fertilize the Park’s thousands of plants, flowers, and trees. Bats also help to spread seeds through their droppings, which helps with natural ecosystem regeneration.

To keep up with all this work, these tiny, high-metabolism creatures need to eat. Most of the Park’s bats feed on fruit, nectar, and—luckily for New Yorkers—insects. In fact, bats can consume 20–50% of their body weight in insects each night, helping to alleviate mosquito bites and fight against the spread of West Nile virus.

Dene Slope photographed in summer

Landscapes like the Dene Slope are filled with native plants that depend on bats, birds, and bees for pollination.

A scary story

Of course, like most wildlife, bats are facing hard times. A particularly devastating threat to the North American bat population is called white-nose syndrome, which has killed millions of bats over the years. This fungal disease, which was identified in upstate New York in 2006, “is a really, really big deal,” according to Danielle. “There are over six million bats that are now dead, and the fungus is spreading.”

Challenges for the bat population don’t stop at white-nose syndrome. As cities become denser and forests around the world are cleared, bat habitats are disappearing at an alarming rate. “With all of this urbanization that has come through New York City,” Danielle says, “Central Park and Prospect Park have become critical habitats for urban bats. The amount of birds and bats that use this Park is astonishing.”

A bat in flight in Central Park

A silver-haired bat flies over the Pond in Central Park. These bats typically forage for insects along forested areas and over water bodies. Photo courtesy of D. Bruce Yolton at Urban Hawks.

The ultimate wingman

Thanks to the Conservancy’s work to care for this diverse ecosystem, New York's bats have bright days ahead in Central Park. Bat-friendly habitats like the Hallett Nature Sanctuary have been restored, and Conservancy staff monitor the health of the area’s soil while caring for the native plant life. The North Woods and the Ramble similarly offer large trees, water bodies, and plenty of insects to keep bats satiated.

The Hallett Nature Sanctuary shown in mid-autumn

Areas like the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, on the southern end of the Park, have been restored by the Conservancy to better serve the wildlife that call it home.

Visitors to the Park can also work to keep bats safe and accounted for. One great way to start? By collecting data. Through apps like iNaturalist and eBird, citizen scientists (like you!) can “go out, observe, and record data about the birds and bats they see, and that helps scientists to understand where bats live and what challenges they may be facing,” Danielle explains. This information is essential to the growing movement to support bats and build a broader understanding of their ecological significance. And remember: as with all wildlife in Central Park, do not approach or touch any bats in the Park, to ensure the safety of both you and our winged friends.

Danielle Gustafson holding a tablet computer demonstrating an echolocation app

Danielle Gustafson shows Central Park Bat Group members how bats use echolocation to navigate and find food in the Park.

To get started on your bat journey, take a Tree Walk through Central Park and be sure to look out for any mischievous bats dangling like leaves or swooping in after the chimney swifts for a late-night snack. “I feel like the more you know, the more you care, and the more fascinating these creatures become,” Danielle says. “Anything that facilitates that kind of engagement is essential for conservation.”