Over the last few weeks, I’ve been in the midst of transitioning into my new position as a Research Fellow in the Anthropology Department at the University of Texas. As part of this process, I took a quick trip to Austin on Monday, and was happily surprised to find that a dear friend happened to be in town exactly when I was. He suggested that we go check out one of Austin’s most famous attractions: the Congress Avenue Bridge bats.
In 1980, the Congress Avenue Bridge underwent reconstruction. Shortly after the work was complete, thousands of Mexican Free-Tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) decided it was an ideal place for a nursery colony and began living underneath the bridge.
People reacted with alarm when they saw swarms of bats flying out from underneath the bridge every evening in the summer. But thanks to the marvelous educational efforts of Bat Conservation International, the citizens of Austin learned that the bats weren’t dangerous, and that they were extremely beneficial insect eaters and pollinators. Austin quickly began to appreciate the bat colony. Protected, it grew to become a huge tourist attraction: some 100,000 people visit it yearly to see the evening emergence. There were over 100 people out with us Monday night: parents with children, tourists from other countries, vendors selling souvenirs. It was amazing to see such community support for a much-maligned animal.
As for the emergence itself…it was breathtaking. It’s hard to describe in words what 1.5 million bats flying out in search of insects (they eat 10-20,000 lbs of them nightly) looks like, but I recorded about thirty seconds of it so you could see and hear for yourself:
Mexican free-tailed bats are widely distributed throughout the southern United States and Central and South America. They are migratory; the Austin colony lives in Mexico during the winter, returning to the bridge each year to roost their young pups. Remarkably, mothers returning from their nightly feed are able to identify their pups out of the millions of bats in the colony by scent and sound.
Here is a baby Mexican free-tailed bat. Can you hear him vocalizing?
Next time you’re in Austin I encourage you to go out and watch this amazing natural phenomenon, and perhaps toast these wonderful creatures with a bit of
“el ron de murcielagos”.
You might see me there some evenings!
Ooh, I love bats! When I was a kid, Dad found one that had died on our property and kept it until we got home from school so we could study it. Fascinating little thing! I love going outside on summer evenings and watching them hunting around my yard. 🙂