In many parts of the world, bats rank with snakes, spiders, scorpions and other members of the animal kingdom that are regarded as "creepy" or even dangerous. But research has shown that bats are not very dangerous. In fact, they occupy an important place in the ecosystem. There are few places in the world where the flying mammals are more popular than the southwestern U.S. city of Austin, Texas, home of the world's largest urban bat colony.
The story of Austin's love affair with bats starts here at the Congress Avenue Bridge, which spans Town Lake. This busy bridge joins the Texas state capitol and downtown area with south Austin.
But what makes this structure so special is what exists underneath and what emerges every night during the summer.
This is the home of an estimated million and a half bats.
Construction work done on the bridge more than 20 years ago resulted in expansion slots, about 40 centimeters deep, that are now occupied by migrating Mexican freetail bats. The bats like these spaces for nesting, so every year hundreds of thousands of bats return here from their winter stay in Mexico.
Brent Lyles is a representative of the Austin-based Bat Conservation International, a private research and education group. He says many people are fascinated by bats once they overcome their fear.
"Bats are really mysterious and, in a sense, that is part of the mystique about them, I think that is part of what attracts some people to bats. It is because they are mysterious."
When the bats first came, the local newspaper, the Austin American Statesmen, ran alarming headlines. Some people saw the bats as a threat. But Bat Conservation International convinced the public and local officials that the bats were a benefit.
"Ten years later, the Austin American Statesman was running headlines that said, 'Attention bat lovers, the furry friends are back.' Today we get 100,000 people every year watching the bats come out," said Mr. Lyles.
The bat emergence is at its peak during the summer months here. It can be viewed all along the shoreline, as the bats move out in search of moths and other insects to eat. The newspaper funded the park near the bridge that is a major viewing site.
Brent Lyles says many local people come back again and again to enjoy the spectacle. "They are on their tenth visit. They have their favorite spot they like to watch the bats from. They bring folks down here when they come from out of town. You know, it is neat because it is an attraction that runs itself in a way. Bat Conservation International comes out here on the weekends in the summer to talk to people about the bats. But really it is the people of Austin that make this attraction work."
"The kids just really love it,” says one local dad. “They say, 'Let's go see bats!' And it is cheap, cheap entertainment."
"Oh, I am absolutely amazed,” says a first-time visitor. “I want to come back. I read the statistics on the number of bats here. I always knew there were many, but I never knew they were so beautiful and I plan to come back."
Every night the bats eat 15 tons of corn earworm moths that pose a threat to nearby cotton fields. So their value to agriculture may be even greater than the roughly 10 million dollars they bring to Austin every year as a tourism attraction.
Brent Lyles tells us, "Attitudes are changing about bats. So many people say, 'Oh, bats -- my grandfather used to shoot them, but I know that they are good to have around.' "