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It’s almost dusk in downtown Austin, Texas, and Congress Avenue bridge is packed. Leaning over the railing, hundreds of shorts-clad students, tourists and locals are pointing their cameras awkwardly toward the bridge’s belly. A guy hawking ice cream bars barks to the crowd, but even a chilly Sno-Cone on a hot summer night can’t move anyone to reach for his wallet. No one wants to miss the bats.
A million and a half Mexican free-tailed bats – a number so incomprehensible that you just have to see it for yourself – live beneath the bridge. Every evening from March to November, the creatures take a cue from the dipping sun and take to the sky en masse. At first, a few dozen bats dart out over Town Lake on an erratic recon mission, eliciting didja-see-that’s from the crowd. But then – show time! – thick ribbons of fluttering, undulating animals unspool from the bridge supports at 60 miles per hour.
Even people who don’t know much, if anything, about bats (“Will they get in my hair? Do they
bite?”) find these bridge dwellers way cool. Their amazing exodus gets total strangers swapping
questions: “Where are the bats going?” “What will they eat?”
Before this better-than-any-IMAX show is over, you might not know those answers, but you will
know that the collegian on your left has seen the bats five times, and that next month he’s
bringing his mom.
A destination city known for its tech industry and music scene, Austin epitomizes the adage “If
you build it, they will come.” That was never more true than in 1980, when city engineers
rebuilt the 946-foot Congress Avenue bridge, and Austin’s bat population took off. In about
five years’ time, the handful of bats that already called the bridge home multiplied by tens of
thousands. Attracted by the new, perfectly-bat-sized expansion joints beneath the bridge, the 4-
inch animals with the 12-inch wingspans formed a colony that became the talk of the Texas
A few squeamish Austinites demanded that the colony be destroyed. But Merlin Tuttle, founder of the nonprofit educational group Bat Conservation International (BCI), went to Austin’s who’s who and quickly got out the word: Forget what you know from the movies, he urged. These bats aren’t out for blood.
Mexican free-tailed bats are, in fact, gentle, passive creatures, says Barbara French, a
conservation biologist with BCI. The nocturnal mammals have an enormous appetite for agricultural pests and can eat up to their own body weight in bugs. Austin’s bridge colony devours up to 30,000 pounds of mosquitoes, moths and other crop killers nightly. Using echolocation to navigate, the bats can travel up to 30 miles from the roost, flying as high as two miles over waterways and farms.
At dawn, the animals return to the bridge in groups, having eaten the human equivalent of
50 pizzas each. The bats spend the daylight hours hanging upside down, clustered tightly
together, in their roost. Throughout the day, though, visitors standing on or near the bridge can
hear the animals chittering. “They’re social little guys,” says French, who has studied their
vocalizations. Listen closely, and you can hear buzzes, chirps, trills, beeps and clicks.
Austin’s is a maternity colony, which means that most of the bats are females. In June, each
gives birth to one pink, hairless pup. About half a million baby bats will take to Austin’s skies by
summer’s end. August is the best bat-viewing month.
By the time the colony seeks warmer weather in Mexico each November, more than 100,000
tourists from all over the world will have poured $8 million into the local economy. Recognizing
what an asset the bat colony is to Austin, BCI and local businesses work earnestly to preserve it.
Signs ask that you look but don’t touch the bats, and a fence encourages sightseers to keep a
respectful distance from the colony. At the picnic-friendly Bat Observation Center adjacent to the
bridge, visitors can learn more about the bats through educational kiosks or by talking to a BCI
expert on summer weekends (June through August). During the year, BCI experts teach
elementary school students about bat conservation.
It’s been 25 years since the tiny flying mammals swooped into Austin by the thousands and a
newspaper headline screamed “Bat Colonies Sink Teeth Into City.” This diverse metropolis of
650,000 residents – many of whom live and die by the motto “Keep Austin Weird” – is now
affectionately nicknamed “Bat Capital of America.” Talk about an attitude adjustment: The Austin American-Statesman, the local newspaper once responsible for anti-bat articles, now sponsors
the Bat Observation Center. The public library hosts an annual Bat Week. Austin’s hockey team
is the Ice Bats. And in 1998, the city erected a massive sculpture of a Mexican free-tailed batÃ?Â?
with a 20-foot wingspan.
“The Austin colony is a perfect model of how to protect a species,” says French. “It’s become a
source of revenue for the city.” Everyone in Austin benefits from the bats: the local farmers who
sell their produce at the eco-chic Central Market; the hotel and restaurant owners whose lakeside suites and dining rooms swell with tourists each summer; and the visitors and residents who enjoy mosquitofree outdoor activities such as the annual Austin City Limits Music Festival. In 2004, the three-day event brought about 75,000 sweaty people to potentially buggy
Taking a page from Austin’s success story, the Texas Department of Transportation has teamed
with BCI to study bat roosting preferences. Results will help engineers develop roosting sites in
Texas highway structures.
In the meantime, Tuttle looks to the future and sees it 20 miles from the center of San Antonio, at Bracken Cave, home of the largest bat colony in the world. Twenty million Mexican free-tailed
bats live there. At dusk, from miles away, you can see gray columns of bats rising from the
cave like cyclones.
When Tuttle founded BCI in 1982, critics told him that bats were hopelessly unpopular. But Tuttle is in the business of educating people, and by anyone’s standards, he’s succeeded. Besides, he’s not finished.
At Bracken Cave, which BCI owns and protects, he plans to build an environmentally sensitive
world center for bat education. Half of the building will be below ground; the other half will come
just to tree level. “It’s an ideal location,” Tuttle says, citing Bracken as one of the dozen natural
wonders of the world.
Currently, only BCI members have access to the cave. So, if he builds this center, will the world’s bat-curious come? And will they take its pro-bat message home with them? If Austin’s any model, the answer is yes – by the thousands.
To learn more about Bat Conservation International, bats of the world or bat habitats, visit
batcon.org or call 512.327.9721. For information about visiting Austin, call 866.GO.AUSTIN, or
log on to austintexas.org.