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Mild winter lures bats from Central Texas north

Mar 24, 2013 1:01am

LONGVIEW, Texas (AP) — Dean Wharton is a bat man.

Although he specializes in ridding properties of unwanted critters such as snakes and spiders, for the past two months Wharton's work has gone batty — he's been busy expelling the flying mammals from buildings in and around Longview.

In early February, he got a call from Kilgore College-Longview, where the cosmetology building had a bat problem.

"There were several hundred," Wharton said. "But that's common. I've seen a place off Mobberly (Avenue) that had thousands in a wall."

Mexican free-tailed bats appeared in Northeast Texas earlier than normal this year, experts say, because of a warmer-than-normal winter. The creatures migrate south for the winter, but Wharton believes some have overwintered here.

"As soon as we had those couple of crazy warm snaps, I started getting calls," he told the Longview News-Journal (http://bit.ly/10jY0TO). "I get a lot more calls in Northeast Texas for bats than in Louisiana. This is in a flight path."

In Longview, city health officials have received about two dozen calls since the first of the year about bats, primarily between downtown and Interstate 20. Two people have reported being bitten.

Recently in Longview, Wharton said he was working with a half dozen clients in and around the city, mostly businesses that requested confidentiality from his Raven Services Pest Elimination. Most feared bad public reaction to news of a bat infestation.

"People see a bat and they think 'Ooh, it's going to bite me!' or 'It carries rabies!' They're really misunderstood," he said. "They're fragile creatures. People panic and have phobias, but bats do a lot of good for us. Especially with West Nile like it is, we need all the help we can get with those insects."

A Mexican free-tailed bat can eat up to two-thirds its body weight in insects each night, and more than 1,000 mosquitoes in an hour. And they help pollinate fruit trees.

But they also can carry rabies, and their droppings can lead to histoplasmosis infections. Enough bats can damage a structure.

"You get thousands in an attic and the weight can damage the ceiling," Wharton said. "They can get down into the walls. You can hear them chirping, and if they get trapped they can dehydrate and die. You don't want that."

Buck Farrar, head of the city's environmental health department, said the unusual season has had animal control officers taking a higher-than-usual number of calls about bats.

One woman was bitten by a bat in a cinder block at a Longview retailer. Another biting was reported in a residence near downtown, Farrar said.

"The woman in the house thought it was a bird and she tried to pick it up," he said. "That's normally how someone gets bitten — they try to pick it up or otherwise disturb it. That is a no-no."

In 2007, a bat in Gregg County tested positive for rabies, according to records maintained by the Texas Department of Health Services. In that case, Farrar said, a man working on an electrical line was bitten by a rabid bat.

Farrar cautioned people to be careful when encountering the animals.

"Don't try to touch them," Farrar said. "Call us. An animal control officer will come out."

Seven bats have been tested for rabies in Longview this year. None tested positive.

Bats breed before they go into hibernation so when they come out, the female is already carrying her young. The babies, called pups, are normally born around June. But because they arrived so early this year, Wharton said, they're probably expecting around April.

"They're looking for a place to set up shop, to set up a nursery for the summer," Wharton said.

If you find bats in your home or office, Wharton advised, put pressure on them to leave without hurting them.

To do that at Kilgore College-Longview, he set up flood lights in the attic, doing away with the darkness bats seek. Workers spread mothballs in the attic, which also encouraged the bats to find another home.

Bats routinely leave their roosts around dusk. They can fly as far as 100 miles while feeding overnight and usually return to the roost at dawn.

At the college near downtown, Wharton spread weighted netting over the exit points so the bats could fly out but could not get back in. He also sealed off the original entry points. Then, college personnel installed bat houses around the roof line, away from public areas.

Another large colony of bats was removed in January from the Old Masonic Lodge in Marshall by Gecko Pest Control. In 2010, Gregg County spent $8,800 expelling bats from the courthouse. A company from San Antonio expelled those bats, Farrar said.

"They're here on this Earth for a reason," Wharton said of the little creatures. "First and foremost, if you maintain your building you won't have this problem. You have to cut off their entryways."

___

Information from: Longview News-Journal,


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