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Austin: Wildlife Viewing

Going Batty

Austin has the largest urban bat population in North America -- much to the delight of Austinites. Some visitors are dubious at first, but it's impossible not to be impressed by the sight of 1.5 million of the creatures emerging en masse from under the Congress Avenue Bridge.

Each March, free-tailed bats migrate from central Mexico to various roost sites in the Southwest. In 1980, when a deck reconstruction of Austin's bridge created an ideal environment for bringing up babies, some 750,000 pregnant females began settling in every year. Each bat gives birth to a single pup, and by August these offspring take part in nightly forays east for bugs, usually around dusk. Depending on the size of the group, they might collectively munch on anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 pounds of insects a night -- one of the things that makes them so popular with Austinites. By November, these youngsters are old enough to hitch rides back south with their group on the winds of an early cold front.

While the bats are in town, an educational kiosk designed to dispel some of the more prevalent myths about them is set up each evening on the north bank of the river, just east of the bridge. You'll learn, for example, that bats are not rodents, they're not blind, and they're not in the least interested in getting in your hair. Bat Conservation International (tel. 512/327-9721; www.batcon.org), based in Austin, has lots of information -- not to mention bat-related items for sale. Log on to the website or phone tel. 800/538-BATS for a catalog. To find out what time the bats are going to emerge from the bridge, call the Austin American-Statesman Bat Hot Line (tel. 512/416-5700, category 3636). A lot of people don't know this, but sometimes the bats don't leave all at once. If you can still hear bats chattering from beneath the bridge, sit tight; you may have an encore presentation.

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