Bat conservation takes flight in central Texas
“This is the best show I’ve seen all year.” Texas Parks and Wildlife urban wildlife biologist Kelly Simon tips her head back to watch hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats spiral into the dusky sky from their roost beneath Round Rock’s McNeil Bridge.
Every February, millions of free-tails migrate from Mexico to Texas. Males roost separately in smaller groups while females form large maternal colonies to raise pups. Because of habitat loss, they often roost in human-built structures such as bridges, abandoned buildings, and tunnels.
The Texas Department of Transportation began tracking bats’ use of state bridges in the mid-1980s, when a large population of free-tails moved into newly-constructed crevices beneath the Congress Bridge in downtown Austin, sparking public health and safety concerns. Many residents petitioned to have the bats eradicated.
Over the next three decades, Bat Conservation International, TWPD, and TxDOT worked to foster goodwill and educate locals about the benefits of living near bats. Kelly has been involved with TPWD’s bat outreach efforts for 22 years and often leads programs for families.
“Due to movies and the media, people believe a lot of incorrect information about bats,” she says. She lists common myths: bats are blind, large, and aggressive; bats drink blood and spread diseases. “I try to show that bats are really beneficial and interesting and that most of them are very tiny.”
As public acceptance grew, TxDOT founded its Bats and Bridges program, through which they intentionally construct bat-friendly bridges statewide. Presently, more than 1.5 million bats make their summer home under the Congress Bridge and generate ten million dollars in annual tourist revenue as spectators gather to witness their flights. Farther south in San Antonio, Bracken Cave Preserve’s 15 million-strong mega-population also attracts healthy crowds.
However, many people aren’t aware of the McNeil Bridge bats. “Most people think of the Congress Bridge or Bracken Cave when they think of bat-watching in Texas,” Kelly says. “But Doppler radar and infrared photography show that the McNeil colony is close to the size of the Congress colony, so this is a wonderful place to watch bats.”
Steady traffic, construction and trains make the viewing experience at the McNeil Bridge slightly hectic, but these drawbacks are outweighed by easy parking and light crowds. On clear evenings between April and October—especially in July and August when pups begin flying—bat-watchers park at NAPA Auto Parts and stand near the railroad tracks. At sunset, the bats depart in swirling streams meant to confuse predators like hawks and owls.
Their mission? Dinner.
The McNeil bats devour an estimated 30,000 pounds of moths, beetles, flies, wasps, ants, caterpillars, and—heroically—mosquitoes every night. Added to the Congress bats’ 30,000 pounds and the Bracken bats’ 337,500 pounds, the nightly bug buffet is a force for insect control. According to TPWD state mammologist Jonah Evans, bats save Texas farmers $1.4 billion per year by reducing crop damage and pesticide use and add $23 billion to U.S. agriculture.
Even bat excrement, or guano, is beneficial. As bats defecate on the fly, they fertilize the soil and distribute seeds. Farmers harvest guano to fertilize plants and ward off bugs, and chemists use guano to produce products like laundry detergent and antibiotics and to neutralize industrial waste.
The Congress, Bracken, and McNeil colonies are made up of Mexican free-tailed bats, but while free-tails are the easiest to observe, more than 30 other species—most of which are solitary and roost in foliage—call Texas home. Prevalent native species include the brilliant Eastern red bat, the palm-loving Northern yellow bat, the cute cave myotis, and the lion-like Seminole bat.
Rehabilitation and Education
“One of these days, I’m going to get enough sleep,” says Dianne Odegard, chuckling as she slips on leather gloves. She reaches into one of four mesh animal habitats set up on a table in her dimly-lit rehabilitation room and gently extracts a juvenile Mexican free-tailed bat with a broken wing to check his splint and encourage him to drink water from an eyedropper.
“Unfortunately, he may never fly well enough to be released because the bone structure of bats’ wings are so delicate,” she says. Bats usually end up in her care because of exposure, dehydration, illness, or trauma. “Someone may have struck him with something because they were afraid of him. It happens more often than you think.”
For years, Dianne managed public outreach for BCI, leading bat education for local schools, clubs and neighborhood organizations, Master Naturalists chapters, and animal control officers. Her coauthored brochure, “Bats and Buildings,” discusses strategies for coexisting with bats in urban spaces.
In 2010, Dianne and husband Lee Mackenzie revived BCI’s Congress Bridge outreach program. They educate the public at the bridge twice a week while running their nonprofit wildlife rehabilitation and education organization, Austin Bat Refuge, full-time. “My favorite thing is being able to share that bond with the orphaned pups,” Lee says. “It’s so rewarding to give them a second chance and watch them develop from helpless little creatures into badass bug-killing machines, ready for release into the wild.”
“Most people never get to observe bat behavior like we do,” adds Dianne. “I love seeing the interactions between mothers and their pups and witnessing the stages the pups go through as they learn how to forage and fly.”
While the world’s only flying mammals may not be beloved by all, Dianne and Lee have encountered many Travis and Williamson county residents willing to do anything necessary to save the tiniest pup. “It’s really heartwarming,” Dianne says. Because bats require busy feeding and care schedules, Dianne and Lee usually ask people to safely capture a bat in need and bring it to the refuge. If time allows, they show visitors around and allow them to view stronger patients. “When people see what bats are really like, especially how small and fragile they are, they understand the need to protect rather than fear them,” Dianne adds. “It’s amazing to watch.”
Found a bat? Here’s what to do:
- Take a deep breath. This tiny creature is nothing to be afraid of.
- Don’t strike at it. If a bat accidentally flies into your home, please do not strike at it. Close doors leading to other rooms and open doors and windows leading outside.
- Don’t touch it. Bats rarely test positive for rabies, but like all mammals, they can become infected. To keep yourself and the bat safe, it’s best not to touch it.
- Visit austinbatrefuge.org. There you’ll find complete details about what to do if you find a sick or injured bat or if one flies into your home.
- Call Austin Bat Refuge at 512-799-8847 or 512-695-4116. Dianne or Lee will walk you through the steps of what to do next. You can also contact Austin Wildlife Rescue or Austin Area Wildlife Rehabilitation, Inc.