– Bats, those winged critters of the night. The mere thought of them can send shivers up the spine of even the toughest humans. Why would anyone want to attract these scary mammals to his or her yard?

Bats are one of the least understood animals. The ignorant have bestowed upon them all sorts of evil traits, most of which are untrue. In reality, bats are very valuable to our increasingly fragile environment.

Sure, once in a while they wiggle through tiny cracks or crevasses into our homes and frighten us as they expertly dodge tennis rackets or brooms while flying helter-skelter from room to room. But bats also eat insects, and lots of them. Studies show a single bat may eat thousands of mosquitoes in one night. For that, we should provide them with a home.

Bat houses are available from most stores that sell bird-feeding products, or you can build your own bat house. The book "Woodworking for Wildlife" by Carrol Henderson includes simple plans for building two different types of inexpensive bat houses. Bat houses differ from bird houses in that bats enter the multichambered house from below rather than through a hole in the side.

Despite their unattractive appearance and bad reputation, bats provided me with one of my most memorable outdoor experiences. I was bow hunting for deer in early September not far from the bat house that hangs under the eave on the side of my house. From my perch in an ash tree I watched as the sun set over a pond — the afterglow a radiant yellow-orange — when a great horned owl flew from the depths of the mostly green forest and landed atop a dead tree. Moments later several bats appeared. The winged mammals flew randomly about during their insect gathering forays, and the owl followed their every move, its head swiveling back and forth signaling its intent.

No way, I thought. A large, cumbersome great horned owl would not have a chance at capturing a radar-equipped bat on the wing.

Suddenly the owl sprang from its perch. The big bird-of-prey flew directly upward toward its intended target — a bat winging a few yards above its head. I watched in amazement, a predator-prey confrontation unfolding in silhouette against the brilliant orange sky. Upon reaching its intended victim the owl swung its large feet upward and, with needle-sharp talons, snatched from below the clueless bat.

The owl returned to its original perch where it downed the bat in one gulp. Three times the owl repeated the performance.

Had I not placed a bat house at my residence I may not have witnessed the unusual predator-prey interaction. Reason enough for me to provide a home for bats.

Bill Marchel, an outdoor writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.