When the Congress Avenue Bridge was reconstructed in 1980, no one realized that the crevices below the bridge would make ideal nesting places for Mexican free-tailed bats. But ideal they are, and eventually Austin became home to the largest urban bat colony in North America.
Although bats have always lived under the bridge, after it was redesigned in 1980, colonies heading north from wintering in Mexico began heading Austin in enormous numbers. At the time, very little was known locally about the bat population, so a mild hysteria began to multiply among citizens. In fact, there was even a local group calling for widespread elimination of the winged creatures.
Almost four decades later and Austin has not only learned to accept our flying neighbors, but embrace them to become the Bat Capital of America. That road to acceptance, however, wasn't always smooth. Here, we examine the complex history of the Austin bats.
Bat Conservation International (BCI)
While the introduction of bats was causing alarm in local citizens, Merlin Tuttle, Ph.D, a scientist and bat enthusiast, was working as the curator of mammals at the Milwaukee Public Museum in Wisconsin. Tuttle had a lifelong fascination with bats and was interested in educating the public on the benefits of bats in a community and the importance of bat conservation. Tuttle even wrote his dissertation on population ecology of the gray bat for the University of Kansas.
In 1986, Tuttle quit his job in Milwaukee and devoted himself entirely to the creation of Bat Conservation International. He chose Austin as BCI's new headquarters for many reasons, but perhaps the biggest was at the time, it was the largest city in the country to be overcome by bat-induced hysteria. (According to a national opinion poll at the time, bats were so wildly unpopular they ranked between rattlesnakes and cockroaches in terms of public perception.)
BCI has been quite successful in educating the public on the benefits of bats in the community. A few decades after BCI was founded, the bats under the Ann Richards Congress Avenue are thriving as the largest urban bat colony in North America, and bat tourism is estimated by the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau to bring in an estimate ten million dollars annually.
Austin Bat Refuge
While BCI advocates for and educates the public on bats worldwide, there is a local sanctuary, Austin Bat Refuge, committed to the health and welfare of the bats in Austin. The organization cares for abandoned and injured bats found in Central Texas and Houston. They also operate the bat observation area in the Austin American-Statesman parking lot during peak times to answer questions and direct first-time viewers so they can have a fulfilling experience while viewing the bridge bats.
ABR was started by a public outreach specialist formerly with BCI, and a group of devoted volunteers who together help educate the public on bat facts such as:
- 1.5 million bats take flight from the Congress bridge every day during bat season, which runs March through September. The bats leave at dusk (putting on a stunning show) and return at daybreak.
- The gentle creatures are voracious eaters and together consume 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of insects per day.
- Many of the bridge bats are female and in early June most of the females give birth to a single bat, also called a pup. The nursing mothers will consume close to their weight in insects on a daily basis.
- Close to 100,000 people go to the bridge every year to witness this quirky and dazzling display.
- The hotter and drier the temperatures are (think August) the earlier the bats leave for their nocturnal journey.
The next phase
Austin has gone from bat hysteria to celebrating them with things like the Night Wing Bat Sculpture on South Congress. Now, thanks to private donations by individuals and corporations, the Trail Foundation is about to complete a $2.5 million dollar bat viewing bridge this May.
In addition to needed safety improvements to the aging bridge, the project includes a 172-foot pedestrian bridge and a bat viewing area on the north end of the bridge (at the foot of the new The Line hotel, along the hike-and-bike trail). The Trail Foundation and the developers of this project worked closely with Austin Bat Refuge to ensure that not only bats would not be disturbed, but that a serene and scenic area would exist to enhance the goal of witnessing the bat as they leave the bridge at sunset only to return at sunrise the next morning.
Embracing the bats
Whether a tourist or seasoned Austinite, what better way to see the bats than leisurely watching them while floating on the lake? There are a number of options for bat tour boats including Capital Cruises and the Lone Star Riverboat (both dock behind the Hyatt Regency). Live Love Paddle (at the AMLI South Shore at 1602 E. Riverside Dr.) offers a special bat viewing kayak tour where groups gather, follow the leader to a prime bat viewing spot on the lake, and then watch the flight together.
Austin has come a long way from fearing them to promoting our beloved bats as a quirky activity for all. Whether you are visiting Austin for a few days, just moved to Austin, or you are a longtime Austinite this nightly show (from March through September) is fun, free, appeals to all ages, and is a uniquely Austin experience.