Why you should care
Keep Austin weird indeed.
The city slickers in this crowd look like they haven’t spent a minute in nature for 10 years. One woman is afraid of sitting because there could be chiggers. Another asks what a chigger is. There are complaints of dirt and mosquitoes and darkness. We’re right in the heart of Austin, Texas— home to a vibrant BBQ, music and art scene — but we are all sneaking in a little trip back to Mother Earth. And by Mother Earth, I mean “bat bridge.”
From under a bridge just tens of feet away, bats are emitting high-pitched chirps. The question on every newcomer’s mind is uttered aloud as the winged mammals arrive in waves: Do we want to move up close and personal or stay a safe distance away and lessen our chances of getting pooped on? Pro tip: You can run, but you can’t really hide from the excrement. Every summer night, some 1.5 million bats — the largest urban colony in the world, according to the Bat Conservation International — take off and fly east to scout out grub in nearby fields.
When I first arrive at the bat bridge, I have to kill time because the bats are unruly entertainers and don’t take off at the same time each night. I stare down at a dead bat, pinned behind glass that BCI’s Lee Mackenzie has brought for me and the kids. These Mexican free-tailed bats, with their short velvety fur and tiny tails, are “the jet fighters” of the bat world, Mackenzie says, referring to their speed.
Fears of rabies and disease were the talk of the town. But the cavalry swooped in.
Their real estate is prime on Lady Bird Lake with the Frost Tower just several blocks away. When the bats fly out together in the dark, they look “like a massive plume of smoke billowing out from under the bridge,” travel blogger Leah Walker says. Years and years of evolution couldn’t have prepared their species for the live music capital of the world, but they seem to be making do. The sun warms the bridge all day long, the moms go out hunting while pregnant and then once they pop their pups out in June, there are twice as many fliers. The bats might live for 12 years, and once they pick a roost site, they hang on to it. So yes, if you pick a favorite, it will probably be back again.
These bats first took up residence in Austin in the 1980s. As the city expanded, so too did its roads and infrastructure. An old bridge over South Congress Avenue added lanes. To accommodate for the extra weight, construction workers built concrete box beams under the bridge, each with ¾ of an inch to 1 inch of a gap. “They had no idea they’d created the world’s best bat roost,” Mackenzie says. While every night hundreds, if not thousands, of spectators line up to watch the bats nowadays, the bat roost at first was loathed. A petition went around to exterminate the bats. Fears of rabies and disease were the talk of the town. But the cavalry swooped in. The BCI moved from Wisconsin to be in Austin and fought for them little ol’ bats.
The full show takes about 45 minutes to finish. You know, 1.5 million bats are a lot to exit a city cave, and some are quicker than others. This will be a night you won’t forget. Sure, you can’t take any bats home, but I can guarantee you’ll have a bit of bat pee on you as a souvenir.