Austin is a people-watcher’s paradise. A city of some 900,000-odd, quirky little snowflakes drifting to some 900,000-odd quirky little tunes, Austin seems built to tempt the inner voyeur, inviting even the most polite of us to plunk down on any available horizontal surface, arch a brow, raise a finger, and start each sentence with, “Now how did—?” Though your average Austinian businessman or barista may not appreciate your perplexed stare, rest assured that there is one place in Austin where you can scratch your ogling itch without fear of retribution. Every summer night, the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge comes alive as hundreds line up to gasp and gawk at over 1.5 million of Austin’s most eclectic residents: its bats.
For the past two decades, Austin has been home to the largest urban bat colony in the United States, the happy hosts of the millions of Mexican free-tailed bats that take up residence there each summer. The colony itself began when the bridge was constructed in 1910, but it wasn’t until seventy years later, following a serendipitous tweak of renovation engineering, that the colony’s population reached the epic level it rests at today. A new line of long, deep grooves running the length of the bridge turned the perfectly ordinary roost into a prime piece of bat real estate—allowing the tenants to pass the daytime hours in irresistibly snuggly little bat stacks—so that within three years, the bridge had reached maximum occupancy: 1.5 million.
Austin’s bipedal residents’ initial reaction to the bat boom of the eighties was not what most would call positive (vampire jokes aside, when bats begin to outnumber people, folks tend to get a little spooked), and the city seriously considered making an effort to eradicate the colony. Thanks to a yeoman’s effort on the part of Bat Conservation International, however, the residents slowly began to see the value of their tiny tenants; gentle, sophisticated little creatures that were harmless, (at least a little) cute, and who could pluck up to twenty thousand pounds of tenacious Texan insectitude from the air every night.
And so it is that Austin’s bats have grown to not only be accepted but celebrated: a quirky little mascot for a quirky little city. Each year as the air begins to warm, Austin begins scanning the sky for its favored residents; tourists and locals alike form clusters on the riverbank, line the walls of the bridge, and lean over the rails of tour boats bobbing expectantly below. As the sun sets over Lady Bird Lake, the chips and chirps of daytime colony chatter will begin to steadily grow in intensity and excitement, until, as if on cue, the bats will begin to pour from beneath the bridge, a single stream eruption that spirals away into the night sky.
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