Ask most people how they feel about bats and you’ll probably receive overwhelmingly negative replies. The fact is, most folks think bats are ugly, gross, creepy, smelly, and dangerous. None of these are true, as most Austinites can tell you.
Here in Austin, we coexist with 1.5 million Mexican free-tail bats that live near the Congress Street bridge over Ladybird Lake. It sounds big because it is: Austin is home to the largest urban bat colony in the world.
Every night from March through November, hundreds of spectators gather to watch the bats’ nightly exodus, and we even hold a massively popular bat festival every year that attracts folks from all over the world and shuts down an entire section of Congress Avenue, one of the busiest streets in town.
Even though Austin’s bats are largely accepted and even celebrated, many of us still only tolerate the furry aerialists. Or, if we do like them, we often misunderstand their behaviors and benefits. To clear the air, here are ten astonishing reasons to should love Austin’s bats…
10.) Bats help protect you from Zika & West Nile Virus
It’s commonly known that bats eat bugs, but do you know which bugs bats prefer? Or how many of those little beasties they devour in a single evening? Bat Conservation International (BCI) says that free-tail bats enjoy a nommy diet of flying ants, moths, dragonflies, wasps, gnats, beetles, and — importantly — mosquitoes, which can carry West Nile Virus and even nastier diseases like Zika. Texas Parks & Wildlife (TPW) adds that Austin’s free-tail colony collectively eats about 30,000 pounds of insects every night, with each bat consuming up to two-thirds of its body weight in bugs. Take that, deadly germs!
9.) Bats are actually adorable
Just look at that face. Is that the face of a terrifying, blood-sucking demon? No. Adult Mexican free-tailed bats have oversized ears and little wrinkly faces, not unlike those of terrier puppies. In fact, baby bats are actually called “pups.” When grounded, Mexican free-tails behave a lot like rodents, sniffing at the air and intelligently surveying their surroundings. Once airborne, they squeak! You just think they’re ugly flying beasties. We promise, they’re not.
8.) Bat guano is your best friend and you just didn’t know it
Stinky as it may be, bat guano is incredibly useful to humans. Mexican free-tail guano has long been used in the production of environmentally-friendly fertilizers and insecticides. Confederate soldiers fighting in the Civil War also harvested guano to produce saltpeter, the key ingredient in gun powder, after their ports were blockaded. Additionally, Bat guano is an important indicator to scientists working to measure pollution and the effects of climate change. It also helps microbiologists and biotechnologists by giving them bacteria and enzymes that help produce things like detergent and antibiotic drugs. Guano is even used to convert industrial waste and its byproducts into safer materials.
7.) Bats are really good at mothering
Mexican free-tailed bats are incredible at the whole mom thing. Each female bat gives birth to one pup per year, which is an amazing feat in itself since baby bats weigh one-third of their mother’s body weight. (To put that into perspective, just imagine birthing a 40-pound human infant!) Even cooler: Baby bats roost together in impossibly tight clusters of up to 500 pups per square foot. Although every pup is nearly identical, mama bats can can locate their babies by keying in on their unique cries and scents.
6.) Bats are super-great team players
Mexican free-tailed bats have a lot of natural predators. Since their nightly feeding frenzies happen like clockwork, it’s not uncommon to witness red-tailed hawks and great horned owls swooping in and out of bat streams looking for a quick meal. This is precisely why bats emerge in groups: That whole “strength in numbers” paradigm. Larger concentrations of bats make selecting just one bat to swoop in and grab much more difficult for raptors on the prowl. Bats understand that there’s no “I” in team and that definitely makes them awesome.