August in Austin? Time to Get Batty
This is the best month to hang with the city’s famous nocturnal citizens. They even have their own music festival.
During daylight hours, the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin looks ordinary enough. Just a few blocks from the Texas State Capitol, connecting downtown to south Austin, its wide, flat roadway and two walkways span over 900 feet above Lady Bird Lake, propped up by an aesthetic series of concrete arches and vertical ribs.
But come sundown, those arches come alive—quite literally. Since 1980, when construction inadvertently created bat-width crevices, the bridge has become home to what is now the most famous urban bat colony in the world. When the sunlight diminishes and temperatures start to cool, the 500,000 to 1.5 million Brazilian free-tailed bats hanging upside down in the concrete wings begin to emerge for their nightly insect foraging, swirling in the air in one of the coolest urban wildlife spectacles humans can witness.
The bats here are almost all females, roosting in the bridge to incubate the one pup they produce each year. “Most free-tailed bats from Texas migrate south into Mexico in October or November and remain active year-round, returning to Central Texas in March or April,” says Teresa Nichta of Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation. As their natural habitats of caves and tree hollows disappear, they’re forced to find alternative modes of housing, like bridges. “The massive concrete beams serve as thermal heat sinks, providing ideal temperature ranges for rearing young.”
At dusk, the emergence begins as a trickle, sporadic squeaks filling the air as the brown-eyed mammals fly downstream in search of food. Around the bridge, there are signs warning viewers not to touch grounded bats and to watch out for guano falling out from the sky (though that’s good luck, no?).
The squeaks pick up as hundreds of thousands of bats emerge, forming an undulating ribbon visible for more than a mile. They climb higher and higher, sometimes catching tailwinds thousands of feet above the ground. These animals have the ability to travel far stretches, easily hopping over to the coast before circling back in a night.
Underneath it all, gazing up, are the hundreds of nightly tourists that bring in the 12 million dollars of revenue this spectacle earns each summer. They’re set up on the bridge or the walkway below (the east side is best). They’re sprawled on the hillside on blankets and lawn chairs. They’re balanced on paddle boards or grouped into kayaking tours from outfitters like Live Love Paddle, or coasting on a boat with Capital Cruises. They’re perched on observation decks or peering out from nearby hotels like the LINE Austin and the Four Seasons, both of which have excellent views. (And while you can’t see the bats from there, the Embassy Suites Austin Downtown South Congress offers a Bat Package and apparently mixes up their own Boozy Bat cocktail.)
Though the Congress Avenue Bridge is the most famous urban bat cave, several other bridges have also become roosts. The Congress Avenue Bridge can’t even claim the largest urban population—that distinction belongs to Texas’s McNeil Overpass at Interstate 35 in Round Rock, which houses as much as 4 million of the fuzzy critters. Other bat-friendly bridges include the Foster Road Bridge in San Angelo and Camden Street Bridge at the San Antonio RiverWalk. Should you want to take yourself on a bat bridge tour of the Lone Star State, the Texas DOT has compiled a list of where to visit.
And thanks to the efforts of conservationists and the foresight of engineers, new bridges are now being constructed with bats in mind. The success of Austin’s Congress Avenue Bridge has also attracted attention from other cities who want to duplicate its success, with an eye towards bat conservation—and, for sure, the tourism dollars that follow.
But it’s Austin whose name will always be synonymous with the phenomena. “Bat City” sports teams have bat-shaped mascots, and if you’re a new UT student, you can ask Bruce the Bat for advice. There’s a bat sculpture, a Bat City Lager by Bitter End Brewery, and a vodka-based Batini cocktail created by the Four Seasons.
The Batini is the official drink of Austin’s annual Bat Fest, a music festival they’ve been throwing since 2004 in honor of the flying beasts. It’s held on Congress Avenue Bridge itself, and this year takes place on Sunday, August 27, with two stages of acts including Chamillionaire, Bun B, Slim Thug, and the Toadies. For those showing up, the Austin Bat Refuge will have a table to field all bat-related questions, and for those showing out, there’s also a bat costume contest—which hopefully won’t confuse the real bats once they emerge.
The Bat Man Cometh
Austin may now be known as “Bat City,” but at first its citizens were not so welcoming of the big-eyed mammals. When the Brazilian free-tails first started to colonize the bridge, attitudes quickly escalated to outright hysteria. Misinformation spread by health officials reported the bats were disease-ridden carriers of rabies (today, the CDC acknowledges it’s a very low percentage), and some citizens even feared the mysterious creatures would suck their blood. Petitions were signed to eradicate the bats with blowtorches, and headlines like “Bats Sink Teeth Into City” and “Mass Fear in the Air as Bats Invade Austin” shouted from newstands around the country. The swirling bridge bats were seen not as a beautiful occurrence of nature, but a scene out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The bats were taking over Austin and its citizens were doomed. Doomed!
But the bats were guilty of nothing, save needing a warm place to nest with their pups. Says Nichta, “No group of mammals has been more misunderstood, needlessly feared, or intensely persecuted than bats.” The fact was, they needed a protector to speak up for them and tout their positive attributes. Enter Merlin Tuttle.
In the early 1980s, Tuttle was a biological ecologist with an intense love for flying mammals. Obsessed with bats, from childhood he found himself hanging alongside moonshiners studying them in the caves of Tennessee just to catch a glimpse. In 1982, he founded Bat Conservation International (BCI) and even went on Letterman to preach the bat gospel—with mixed results. People weren’t too enthused with the Bat Man’s conservation rhetoric. Why would they want to protect these flying nuisances? One could say they thought Tuttle was… a bit batty.
They were even more baffled when, in 1986, Tuttle resigned from his job as curator of mammals at the Milwaukee Public Museum and moved his BCI headquarters to Austin. Texas Monthly gave him the “bum steer award,” an accolade usually given to public figures making dubious decisions. But Tuttle had a calling, and set about educating the public about the species—which make up one fifth of the world’s mammals and are crucial to environmental health. “It doesn't take much to learn the truth about bats, put risks in perspective, and share with others,” adds Nichta. “Bats are gentle, sophisticated, and, like them or not, we need them.”
Putting the species’ benefits into human perspective greatly helped Tuttle’s mission. In Mexico, for example, long-nosed bats are greatly responsible for pollinating the agave plants behind the country's beloved mezcal and tequila production. And according to Nichta, approximately 70% of all tropical fruits eaten by humans rely on bats as primary pollinators or seed dispersers in the wild. That ranges from bananas and mangoes to peaches, cashews, and dates.
And in Austin, as elsewhere, bats are a major source of pest control. “Insect-eating bats save farmers approximately $23 billion in annual agricultural losses in the United States alone,” says Nichta. Austin’s urban bat colonies consume 15 tons of insects nightly, and are the primary controllers of vast numbers of night-flying insects.
If those numbers weren’t enough to convince the public, Tuttle had one other trick up his sleeve: an adorable flying fox bat ambassador named Zuri, which he picked up on his travels to Kenya in 1984. After lectures, Zuri would pop out for a meet and greet. Highly photogenic, he was also a television and media star.
Tuttle’s approach was to win friends, not battles—a phrase that’s still his philosophy today. In his book The Secret Lives of Bats, he says, “It is simply amazing how quickly attitudes improve when people finally see bats as they are—sophisticated, beautiful, even cute, quite aside from their crucial roles as primary predators of insects, pollinators of flowers, and dispersers of seeds.”
Four years after Tuttle’s arrival, the then-mayor of Austin, Lee Cooke, declared proudly that the city had become “the bat capital of America.”
Welcome to Bat City
Tuttle retired from the BCI in 2009, and in that same year, founded Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation with the goal of educating the public. In 2021, Austin declared August 26 —the conservationist’s 80th birthday—Merlin Tuttle Day to commemorate his lifelong efforts and contribution to putting city at the forefront of bat conservation. This year, you can join in the Merlin Tuttle Day celebration virtually or, even better, in-person aboard a sunset cruise with bat viewing and storytelling by Tuttle—AKA the Bat Man himself. It takes place one day before Bat Fest, so stick around for a truly batty weekend.
Should you want to expand your bat viewing beyond bridges, Nichta also recommends the Bracken Cave Preserve near San Antonio. The park is run by the BCI and houses the largest known bat colony in the world with about 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats. Viewings happen in the summer months, and reservations are required.
Outside of Texas, Nichta recommends Michigan’s Millie Mine Bat Cave near Iron Mountain. The abandoned vertical mine now attracts up to a million bats for hibernation. A grate covers the mine, but bats flow freely in and out, with a viewing platform set up outside for visitors.
A tornado of bats—a batnado, if you will—can be seen nightly emerging from the tunnels of New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National Park, while Nickajack Cave near Chattanooga, Tennessee offers a viewing platform to observe the threatened gray bats that choose it for roosting. And for a change of bat bridge scenery, Yolo Basin near Davis, California boasts the Yolo Causeway, which stretches over marshy wetlands. There, bat talks and walks are conducted in the summer by the Yolo Basin Foundation.
Austin also isn’t the only home of a dedicated bat festival. On September 10, Bear Creek Nature Center in Georgia, which is home to 16 different species of bats, throws its own Bat Fest, complete with scientists, conservationists, and lots of fuzzy buddies. On October 22, Louisville hosts the Kentucky Bat Fest, with bands, vendors, and local “Batfluencer” Pepperoni (!), while on the same day in Gainesville, the Lubee Bat Conservancy puts on the Florida Bat Festival. The day includes live music, meet and greets with bats, and talks with experts. Also, a beer garden.
Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation has a few pointers for a safe bat watching encounter. Avoid shining white lights on the animals, and refrain from loud noises within 100 feet of the emergence—that includes clapping, yelling, and playing a musical instrument (leave those maracas at home, folks). And if you insist on bringing a drone, keep it at least 20 feet away from the animals, lest a collision renders both the drone and the bat out of service.
Lastly, remember to check the weather forecast—the best emergences are on days with heat and no rain. If you see a grounded bat, call the Austin Bat Refuge. No matter what, never, ever attempt to handle a bat. Authorities say no visitor has ever been attacked by or contracted a disease from Austin’s bats—but, of course, there’s always a first for everything.