Holy Atomic Pile, Batman!
By Dana Goolsby
Palestine- Downtown Palestine is home to some of the oldest buildings in the State of Texas, second only to Galveston. These historic buildings are so grand and impressive they have attracted sightseers from near and far, but also thousands upon thousands of Mexican freetail bats. While the bat colonies of Austin and San Antonio are larger, these bats have transformed Downtown Palestine into one of the largest bat colonies to take up residence in city buildings.
Bats are abundant in Texas. In fact, there are more bats in Texas than any other state in the Union. More bats migrate to Texas annually than do tourists! There are so many bats in Texas that Bat Conservation International moved its headquarters to Austin in 1986 and has been educating people on the ecological importance of bats throughout Texas.
The beautiful downtown buildings offer two perks for the bats- cool, dark places to sleep and ample insects to feast upon. The bats find their way into the old buildings through crumbling mortar, loose or absent boards, and broken windows. Once they have penetrated the building, the bats make their way into the cool, dark spaces in between the walls, between the outer layer of brick and the firewalls.
The flying, nocturnal rodents are often misunderstood, and even conjure up visions and talk of bloodsucking vampires and other creatures of the night. Bats are actually very beneficial in many ways. For instance, they eat two-and-a-half times their body weight each night. This alone helps keep the mosquito population down.
However, there is a major downside. While the bats are known to eat insects, their urine leaves a distinctive odor and is capable of rusting metal and their droppings, otherwise known as guano, can carry disease. Enormous piles of guano can be found in the tops of any open buildings. The bats have caused a foul stench to radiate throughout downtown.
April Johnston, owner of Granny Muffin Wines and the Art Depot, has been dealing with these pesky critters for seven years. Johnston said she is tired of the stinky, health hazards that are hanging around downtown.
“The bats are awful. The smell is one thing, but when the guano dries it gets airborne and causes all kinds of health issues,” Johnston said.
What can be done to drive the bats out of historic downtown Palestine? Very little it seems. The bats are protected by state law, which inhibits anyone from killing the flying rodents. The bats are estimated in number to be somewhere near 100,000.
They only come out at night and can be seen swooping through the light of street lamps downtown, feasting on the insects that swarm around the lights. Some residents say when the bats emerge from their downtown buildings it looks like black water rushing into the air.
The most effective solution would be to close off all possible entrances with sealant and place a device called an excluder in certain areas. This approach would act as a one-way door thus allowing the bats to leave at dusk but blocking their attempt to re-enter the buildings.
Exclusion will be a tricky solution for downtown Palestine to implement effectively. Unless all buildings are properly sealed it is basically impossible to drive the bats out by way of exclusion. The bats will simply find another suitable building in the area if they can.
The longer the bats inhabit the buildings the more damage they can cause.
Building owners have tossed around several ideas, and even discussed the possibility of using the bat’s to theirs and the city’s benefit. Some suggest building a bat house in the Community Forest in order to provide alternative housing for the bats, but keep them around to eat insects. Others think converting one of the old buildings into an eye catching structure, such as clock tower is the way to go. The bats could live in the clock tower, which would allow for easy removal of guano, which could then be sold. Turning guano into cash would not be hard considering it is an excellent source of fertilizer.
Animal control officers said make sure your pets are vaccinated for rabies. Also if you see a bat laying on the ground, do not touch it.
If you want to catch a glimpse of the bats in historic downtown Palestine here are a few tips that will help you.
Be Patient – Waiting for bats to emerge is a “hurry up and wait” process. If the time rolls around and they still haven’t come out of the buildings be patient…they will.
Keep Your Distance – Stay out of the direct flight path of the bats.
Be Quiet – Loud noises disturb the bats and can cause them to alter their emergence.
Dash the lights and no flash photography! – They are creatures of the night. Bright lights startle them and can change their behavior.
No harassing the bats – Never throw anything at a bat.
Never touch a bat – Sometimes during emergence a bat may get grounded. NEVER touch a bat. Just like any other wild animal, when feeling threatened they may bite and just like other mammals bats can contract rabies. However, only a small percentage of bats are rabid, even so the rule is to never touch a bat.