A bat story

It’s fair to say that the Batman franchise (Christian Bale and Gary Oldman, in particular) helped a lot of youth overcome their apprehension of bats. It’s even possible that the cartoons and the movies also led children to develop a liking to these creatures of the night. Because they sure did for me.

That’s not to say I love bats and would nurture them as pets. However, I don’t despise them as I would’ve hadn’t I grown up watching the movies and cartoons. To that extent, it’s worth crediting Hollywood and DC. So now when kids hear that bats are endangered, they’d stay—ears piqued with curiosity—and hear more instead of whizzing away in their scooters. And it’s all thanks to show-business, that an entire community of bats is now the centrepiece every night in Austin.

Let’s back up a little.

If you look up things to do in Austin, Texas, you’ll, no doubt, come across something along the lines of “watch the bats under the Congress Avenue bridge.” It’s nothing out of the ordinary—the structure of the bridge is so that millions of bats have made it their abode, and in the evenings, they fly out from under the bridge to do what bats always do at night—hunt and party.

Congress Avenue Bridge Bats in Austin, Texas
Congress Avenue Bridge Bats in Austin, Texas

I heard about it too, when I was in Austin, and since I had nothing better to do than stare at the darkening sky, decided to pay a visit.

When, following my map, I approached the clearing under the bridge, I expected a handful of tourists. What I saw, instead, was a multitude of people—tourists and locals guiding their friends—all awaiting the beginning of the show.

It’s as natural and ordinary as crows flying to their nests after sundown. However, so many people have never seen a bat in their life that they make a day out of this experience—some bring picnic chairs and blankets, and of course, cameras—to capture a glimpse of the flying mammals.

Although it was already dark, it wasn’t enough to lure the bats outside. Looking around for a comfortable spot to stand, I noticed a middle-aged man standing by a table, with pamphlets and souvenirs, explaining bat behaviour to a few eager listeners. Walking up to him, I heard him mention that the Mexican free-tail bats are soar by the millions every night from mid-March through October.

He was part of an organisation that advocated bat protection and safety. An entire non-profit association for bat welfare—ha! Their work is rather impressive—offering a sanctuary for orphan and injured bats, establishing protective measures for bat deaths caused by white-nose syndrome and wind turbines, and conducting awareness programmes across the globe—because, well, one of the main reasons bats are dying is because we fear them. The Congress Avenue Bridge is just one bat colony—supported by Austin Bat Refuge.

Not only is the bridge home to these bats, but when I looked around, I realised that the entire underside of the bridge is a monument to these fantastic little creatures. Stone pillars with bat illustrations explained their food and flying patterns. And at the corner of the street, leading to the bridge is the massive Night Wing—a rotating metal sculpture depicting the grandeur that’s bats.

Night Wing statue at the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas
Night Wing statue at the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas

I waited for about twenty minutes before the bats emerged from the dark depths of the bridge. As I saw them fly in circles above my head, long wings cutting through the air, pointy ears picking up the slightest of movements, extending tails hovering mid-air, and breaking the invisible barriers in their way, I couldn’t help but fall in love with these under-appreciated guards of the darkness.

It’s amazing how quick we humans are to judge the things we don’t understand. Just because bats aren’t colourful and flimsy, doesn’t mean they’re not intelligent or beautiful. Standing below the bat flight, I realised that we lose so much by fearing the unknown.

Good to know: There’re thousands more non-profit organisations dedicated to bat welfare, most of which come under the Bat Conservation International.