Most people who visit Texas' capital city of Austin, Texas, come for live music and Tex-Mex food. But on a recent road trip through the Lone Star State, I spent some time in Austin for a far different reason: bats.
Yes, bats. As in, flying rodents. Blind little squeakers. The hairballs that inspired Batman.
For years I had read about the population of Mexican Free-Tailed bats that migrates from central Mexico north of the border to various roosting sites throughout the Southwestern U.S. The largest of these sites happens to be Austin; with nearly 1.5 million critters a year, the klatch is the largest urban bat colony in the world.
The bats -- mostly females -- come north to give birth. At the beginning of the season, when they're all pregnant (baby bats are called pups, in case you're wondering), the colony numbers 750,000. By August, after each female has a single pup, the number has nearly doubled.
The creatures spend most of their time hanging under Austin's Congress Avenue Bridge. Every night at sundown, the bats emerge from their hiding spots and fly into the dusk sky. The mass of bats looks like a cloud of giant gnats, buzzing en masse into the darkness. If you're a diver, picture a school of herring, only in the air.
Bats go way back in Austin history. A handful of bats always frequented the area, but when engineers rebuilt the bridge in 1980, bats began moving in by the thousands. Turns out the new structure's concrete crevices made an ideal roost and nursery.
Reacting in fear and ignorance, many locals petitioned to have the colony eradicated. A local nonprofit, Bat Conservation International, stepped in to remake the bats' image. BCI told Austinites that bats are gentle and sophisticated animals, and that bat-watchers have nothing to fear if they don't try to handle bats.
They publicized another benefit of having the flying mammals around -- on any given day, Austin's bat population eats between 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of insects, including agricultural pests.
Today, the bats are as much a part of Austin as Austin City Limits, the bars on Sixth Street and Las Manitas, the famous Mexican diner adored by thousands, including movie director Quentin Tarantino. The local convention and visitor's bureau estimates that more than 100,000 people visit the bridge each year, generating $10 million in revenue.
Armed with all of this knowledge, I visited the bridge around 7:30 p.m. on my last night in town. I read up on the creatures at the Bat Observation Center adjacent to the bridge, and then followed a concrete path down some steps to a path that ran beneath the structure along the north bank.
The place was packed -- at least 200 people had congregated to watch the nightly event. Most of the onlookers were families. Some looked like businesspeople, dressed in suits, putting a natural end to an unnaturally stressful day.
As the sky got darker, the bats began to stir. A cacophony of squeaking flowed from under the bridge, getting louder by the minute. Then, suddenly, a black blur darted past me; then another, and another. By 8:00, bats were zooming everywhere, buzzing by like a swarm of bees.
Occasionally, the crowd of humans oohed and aahed in amazement. Mostly, however, people just stood there, dumbfounded.
By 8:15 or so, darkness had set in, and it was difficult at best make out anything -- bat, human or otherwise. A family next to me applauded, and some other visitors joined in. We all lingered for a while to discuss the spectacle, and in the distance we heard a band start playing at a bar up on Congress Street. Austin's other nightlife had begun to stir.
Matt Villano is a writer and editor based in Half Moon Bay, California. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Forbes, San Francisco Chronicle and many other publications. When he's not working, he likes running and watching whales.