Winters has bats in the belfry

Mexican freetail bats, a small species of bat that thrives in the Yolo county region, have taken up residence in the vacant upstairs rooms of historic downtown Winters.

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In the late evening light, after the sun has set and the yellow street lights have turned on, the junction of Main Street and Railroad Avenue will be populated with diners at outdoor tables, pedestrians rushing to make their reservations and people driving home for dinner. If any of these hungry humans were to look up into the fading light, they would see another species setting out to get their first meal of the day. Mexican freetail bats, a small species of bat that thrives in the Yolo county region, have taken up residence in the vacant upstairs rooms of historic downtown Winters. As the sky darkens and the nocturnal insects come out, the freetail bats follow. From the street the freetail bats might at first look like birds, but as they fly they dart to catch insects with a speed and agility unlike any swallow. Researchers have used aircraft tracking devices to clock the bats traveling at speeds over 99 miles an hour. They outpace the cheetah by over 20 mph, and are considered to be the fastest horizontal flyers of any animal. Along with their impressive speed, the freetail bats are able to turn through the air quickly and sharply, thanks to their namesake tail. Theirs tails cover almost half of their body length, and are classified as “free” because the flesh of the tail stretches beyond their tailbone. The bats can use their tails like the rudder of a ship while in flight. The freetail bats have a wingspan of 11 inches and weigh on average 10-12 grams. Corky Quirk, program coordinator for the Yolo County Basin Foundation and resident bat expert, explained that they weigh about as much as five peanut M&M’s, and their bodies are as long as an adult’s thumb. Quirk gives presentations and leads tours dedicated to freetail bats under the Yolo County Causeway. The colony that lives in downtown Winters is a fraction of the size of the causeway colony. “I would not worry about the bats downtown,” Quirk says. When she noticed the bats on a trip to the Buckhorn, she says that she couldn’t even smell the colony. Quirk is sensitive to the freetail bats’ distinct scent. Unlike most bat species, freetail bats mark their territory with a musky odor. They use scent to mark their home, attract mates and communicate between mother and offspring. Quirk says that if she can’t smell the bats from the street, they are probably a small colony. According to Quirk this colony has lived in the area for some time, and would be very difficult to relocate. Quirk has seen bats move through a neighborhood as they are removed from one house and then another. Quirk thinks that removing the bats shouldn’t even be a concern. Unless the bats have set up a nest in a building’s attic and are defecating into the insulation, they will not cause any damage. In the case of the downtown buildings, the bats might even be living under tiles or inside of crevices on the outside walls. If the bats aren’t damaging the building, Quirk explains, people have very little to fear from them. “Bats are very calm animals. They’re not after us,” Quirk says, and adds, “We’re big and scary.” Not only are the bats not harming people, but Winters and the surrounding farms benefit from the bats zipping around downtown at night. “They’re doing quite the service for both the farmers and the backyard gardeners,” Quirk says. The service the bats provide is pest control. Freetail bats prey on moths, though they will also eat mosquitoes, ants and other small insects. The bats dart about catching these nocturnal insects, and even use their fleshy tails as moth-grabbing nets.  Moths are a pain for both small time gardeners and large scale farmers. By settling in and decreasing the moth population in Winters, the freetail bat is saving everyone some money on pesticide. Though some people consider bats frightening, those fears are often unfounded. Bats are not prone to diving at people or getting caught in their hair. Though their flight patterns may seem erratic, they are using echolocation to navigate. A 2014 study conducted at Wake Forest University in North Carolina found that the freetail bat has a surprising echolocation skill. The bats not only use their calls to seek out food for themselves, they are able to use their voice to effectively “jam” a rival species echolocation, preventing the other bats from hunting in the same airspace. Many people associate bats with rabies. When asked if this is an accurate connection for people to make, Quirk said no. Bats don’t get rabies at a higher rate than other animals, but they are often living, almost literally, on top of us. They inhabit the eaves and attics of houses, so humans and sick bats are more likely to cross paths. “If a coyote gets rabies,” Quirk points out, “it’s probably not going to come around us.” A rabid bat will become lethargic from the virus, and often fall to the ground. Quirk strongly advises that anyone who finds a bat on the ground or behaving atypically should not touch the animal and call for wildlife services. Rabies is spread through saliva. Bats don’t drool, vomit or spit, so if a person does not touch the bat with their bare hands, they will have no way of contracting rabies. Not all atypical bat behavior is dangerous though. Quirk says that as the migration season begins it is not unheard of for bats to find temporary shelter in the eaves of a covered front porch. This is rare, but normal Quirk explains, and the bat will most likely move on within a week. Angel Loretto, who mans Putah Creek Cafe’s pizza oven, just noticed the bats living downtown recently. Overall he feels positively about the small predators swooping about over his head. “I think it’s a really neat feature to the downtown,” Loretto said. Soon he won’t be seeing as many of them in the evenings. The freetail bats will begin migrating in the coming weeks as the evening temperatures drop and the nocturnal insects are less active. Some will stay, but most of  the colony will leave.  Where are the freetail bats heading? They are incapable of hibernation, so they need to winter in climate that will not dip below freezing. Beyond that, Quirk says that no on is completely sure where any one Mexican freetail colony will travel. For now, they are staying in Winters, and protecting outdoor diners from bug bites. For more information about the local bat population, visit yolobasin.org. There are several ways people can help the native bat population, while also protecting their attic from the damages of guano. Bat boxes can be a good way to provide bats with an alternative dwelling. She also says that people can consider planting native, night blooming plants, which will attract insects.]]>

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