Things Every Texan Should Do Before He Dies: Be a bat fan
I've always liked bats.
I've liked the mysterious and scary parts of living around them.
I've liked how they use sound waves to navigate and feed in total darkness.
As a kid, I liked to say "bat guano" and know I wouldn't get my mouth washed out with soap for talking dirty. I also wondered whether I could hit one with a shotgun. I never tried, but a kid steeped in hunting tradition always wonders things like that.
It's dusk, and I'm standing on a limestone hill, cooled by the rush of a million wings, feeling the sweep of air from a column of Mexican free-tailed bats whooshing out of an abandoned railroad tunnel to spend the night foraging for insects.
Through a camera lens, the bats look like black tracers, ghost images that materialize quickly from the open mouth of the man-made tunnel and pass within inches of me before executing a perfect, counter-clockwise, swirling departure through a gap in the trees across the gully.
"They look like a tornado," my grandson says.
Little pellets of guano — that's bat poop to you — rain down from the fluttering cloud. Some bounce off my shirt, a few stick in my hair, most patter on the leaves at my feet.
Just before dark on most nights, the furry, fuzzy, often misunderstood bats of Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area pick up some unheard signal, shudder, stretch and disappear into the night.
At first, it's just one or two, then bursts of a few dozen at a time. Soon thousands per minute are pouring out of the hole in the mountainside, half a million in maybe 15 minutes.
From a distance it can look like a column of smoke. Dense enough to catch your attention. Dense enough to register on weather radar.
As many times as I've seen it over the years, this awesome display of flying ability, endurance and sheer insect gluttony mesmerizes me. Mark it Number 18 on my list of 24 Things Every Texan Should Do Before He Dies.
It doesn't have to be here in Kendall County. It could be as close and familiar as the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin.
There are bats throughout the Hill Country — as many as 100 million Mexican free-tailed bats by some estimates. Most of them are here spring through fall. They make their homes in caves and under bridges. Here along the Old San Antonio Road about a dozen miles south of Fredericksburg, they live in a 920-foot long railroad tunnel dug with pick and shovel out of a limestone mountain.
Trains ran through this tunnel for nearly 29 years, beginning in August 1913.
"Since the early '50s, there have been bats reported at Old Tunnel every year, though the numbers do fluctuate," says Nyta Brown, who oversees the 16 acres of the Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Brown loves bats, loves them so much that, after college, she wound up not far from the family ranch in Comfort, where she saw bats every day. Now she monitors the bats at Old Tunnel and carries the torch for the tiny mammals wherever she can.
These are creatures who can use advocates like Nyta Brown. They have been dogged by myths and folklore and just bad information for eons. Often the belief has been that these "creatures of the night" are vermin to be exterminated, not partners in protecting people.
In Texas, we have 32 of the 45 bat species known to inhabit North America. Our most numerous is the Mexican free-tailed bat, and we have good reason to love him. We would be, almost literally, standing knee-deep in bugs if it weren't for bats.
Consider the numbers. Those who study bats say a typical free-tail may consume as many as 40 corn ear worm moths in a single night. That's in addition to the mosquitoes, scorpions, moths and flies the bat might devour.
At Bracken Cave near San Antonio, an estimated 20 million free-tails make up the largest single mammal population anywhere in the world. The Bracken Cave bats are believed to gobble up more than 200 tons of insects each night. That's 400,000 pounds of insects that could be feeding on the corn in your garden. And they do it every night, March through October.
Here's another way to look at it. If you figure 180 days of flying around scarfing bugs, the Bracken Cave bats consume more than 2.5 pounds of insects for every man, woman and child in Texas. And there are millions more bats in Texas that are doing the same thing. We're talking some serious insect control.
"Free-tailed bats can fly up to 40 miles each night as they forage for insects," Brown says. "Some of them go so far that they might join the population of another cave for a night or two before returning to their favorite roost site."
Unfortunately for the bats, and ultimately the humans they live around, some roost sites have been damaged and lost in the past by people mistakenly thinking they were doing good by getting rid of the little mammals. If they take up in your house, that's one thing, but killing them for the sake of killing them is harmful and short-sighted.
"It happens sometimes unintentionally," says Dianne Odegard of Bat Conservation International. "The worst (damage) is when the pups are there, and the bats that are flying out every night are leaving them behind." If the mothers are excluded by humans, the pups will die. And since bats only produce a single pup each year, that can have a significant impact on the population in that location.
"There's still a lot of fear of bats," Odegard says. The fear is driven in large part by rabies. The disease does occur in bats, but it's also found in skunks, foxes, raccoons, dogs and cats. Luckily for us, transmission to humans is rare and treatable when it's discovered in time.
The good that bats do — for tourism, for pest management, even for plant pollen movement — far outweighs the bad, which is one reason Austin is now home for Bat Conservation International. That organization, founded by researcher Merlin Tuttle, came to Austin after the Congress Avenue Bridge colony was discovered and policy makers and the public were trying to figure out what to do with the bats.
Common sense won out, and the bats got to stay. There's never been any disease transmission to people going to view the exodus on summer evening, and the state now is trying to build bridges around the state with the same unique undercarriage that lets the bats survive in Austin. The more colonies that exist, the more good the bats can do and the better off the bats will be in the long run.
Not to mention the fun of watching them fly out on a warm summer evening. My own twin grandkids were absolutely fascinated with the experience. Connie wanted to feed them, and Ben wanted to drive a train through Old Tunnel. Different viewpoints.
At least now they both understand what bats do for us. And that's good.