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Austin Bats | © Steve/Flickr
Austin Bats | © Steve/Flickr
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The Swarm: What Does The Future Hold For Austin's Bats?

Picture of Aubrey Cofield
Updated: 20 December 2016
Austin is home to the largest urban bat colony in North America. Every night during ‘bat season,’ which runs from March to November, you can see hundreds of people gathered to watch as the bats emerge from the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge. Today, the event is considered one of Austin’s top tourist destinations, and with the rising popularity of these Mexican free-tailed bats comes questions of their safety and the future of their colony.

In 1980, engineers reconstructed Congress Avenue Bridge and placed various crevices beneath the structure, which unintentionally attracted the large colony of bats that reside there today. The colony is made up entirely of pregnant females, as the crevices are the perfect place to keep their young after they give birth. When the bats initially made their move under the bridge, local Austin residents at the time were terrified of contracting rabies and actually petitioned to have the bats removed – Bat Conservation International stepped in to assure the city that bats remain significantly more beneficial than harmful.

Austin Bats © dixie wells/Flickr
Austin Bats | © dixie wells/Flickr

Bats play a crucial role in the ecosystem and are known for seed disbursement, pollinating plants, and eating pests that damage agriculture. They are essential to this planet; unfortunately, these bats are also extremely vulnerable to extinction.

Bats remain one of the slowest reproducing mammals on Earth, especially considering their size. For decades, the conservation of bats was ignored; therefore, little is known about them today compared to most other species that are also vulnerable to extinction. Bats are most beneficial to an ecosystem when they are in large numbers. But as the species dies out, so do their benefits to this planet.

Thankfully, Austin now treasures its bat population, which has allowed for nearly 1.5 million bats to make Austin their home. There’s also good reason to believe the bat population will only continue to flourish as long as the bats are able to congregate safely.

Congres Avenue Bridge Austin © He.Who.Wonders/Flickr
Congress Avenue Bridge Austin | © He.Who.Wonders/Flickr

The behavior of the bat colony does vary and will continue to do so depending on things such as weather conditions. More rain means more bugs, which often means that the bats leave later in the season. You’ll be able to see them fly out every night at some point during ‘bat season,’ but sometimes they depart later in the evening, which means less visibility on those nights.

You can continue to take bat tours on Lady Bird Lake with Lone Star Riverboat, or head over to the American-Statesman viewing area (it’s free) to see the unbelievable site of the nearly 750,000 bats taking off.

It’s important to remember not to handle the bats. If a bat contracts rabies – this is more uncommon than most people think – they die within a few days, and prior to that, they are unable to fly due to paralysis.

The best time to catch the beautiful flight of these Mexican free-tail bats is from April through May. During this time, the pregnant females are especially hungry, so you can see all 750,000 bats exiting on time. The bats are just as much a fun attraction as they are important to the local ecosystems they inhabit. As long as Austin remains a safe migration destination for these bats, locals and visitors can expect to enjoy this natural occurrence for years to come.