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As Congress Avenue bats prepare to migrate, officials consider ways to better care for the colony

Thursday, October 20, 2022 by Andrea Guzman

Austin’s bats are in need of additional protections and the city is preparing to take some small steps to aid the colony. 

During an Animal Advisory Commission meeting last week, members voted unanimously on recommendations to help the Congress Avenue bats continue to live and fly freely. The suggestions include direct efforts to protect their habitat and public outreach to shape public opinion about the bats. 

Austin’s bats – a maternity colony of Mexican free-tailed bats who nurture and raise an estimated 750,000 pups at the bridge annually – haven’t always been beloved. So the key to the bats’ ability to thrive is greater educational outreach. 

“We’re talking about millions of creatures that can be so controversial,” said commission chair Craig Nazor.

The bats are an asset to the city, Nazor noted, since they draw in millions in tourism dollars and consume vast numbers of insect pests like mosquitos, beetles and moths nightly. Nazor invited Merlin Tuttle, who has studied Austin’s bats for about 40 years and is the executive director of a bat conservation, to share insight on the recommendations. 

Tuttle explained that the bats are not the fearsome animals they’ve been perceived as since large numbers began roosting at the Congress Avenue Bridge in the 1980s. 

“They’re, in fact, essential,” Tuttle said. “They make safe and invaluable neighbors. We have a wonderful educational opportunity that we’re not taking full advantage of.”

One of the recommendations passed along to Council involves posting QR codes on the bridge to give visitors information about the bats, such as their ecological significance, what to do if you spot an injured bat, and more. 

Other recommendations for the tiny winged mammals include ensuring that vegetation on the south end of the bridge doesn’t grow too tall, as it’s near their roosting spaces. If foliage sprouts over a meter tall, it could cause the bats to abandon the area.

The commission also discussed possible long-term actions like establishing floating docks for people to view the bats and addressing harm to the bats caused by loud noises. Tuttle pointed to bands playing during Bat Fest and Fourth of July fireworks as actions that could damage the bats’ hearing. 

“It is quite possible that bats exposed to that intensity of noise could have their hearing damaged so seriously as to die,” Tuttle said of the fireworks. 

While the colony is an estimated 1.5 million strong before heading off for their winter migration to Mexico, Tuttle indicated the population faces some threats. 

When he photographed their emergences in the 1980s and ’90s, on some summer nights he’d see four or five columns of bats and have about 15 minutes to capture their travels through the air. But that’s changed. Today he’s lucky to have three minutes photographing three columns, and he says that’s telling us something about what the future holds. 

“We’ve kind of taken for granted that our bats will always be here and that people will always come to see them,” Tuttle said.

Photo made available by CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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