It’s Bat Fest this weekend in Austin, Texas. Austinites celebrate everything by having a music festival, and last night’s 10th Annual Bat Fest got both the locals and plenty of visitors out for the musical attractions. However, the main event was not the bands, or the costumes, or an excuse to party in the street. The real show happened at sundown– when the bats came out.
Flashback, August, 1980: A new ribbon-cutting ceremony has just reopened the Congress Avenue bridge over Town Lake. For the last six years, the bridge has been closed because of damage. But this new bridge is stronger, wider, with a better designed support system, and improved box beams that are both decrease the amount of weight the bridge has to support and allow for weather related swelling in the Texas heat. These beams are also, unbeknownst to the ribbon-cutting officials above, the perfect summer home for mexican freetail bats. The officials leave, and the bats begin to arrive, pregnant moms and soon babies, numbering into the hundreds of thousands.
When the bats come out on summer nights, they swarm. They fly erratically, like children in a bouncy castle, their full-speed trajectories uncertain. The superstition that bats will fly into your hair and get tangled is largely discredited amongst the evening concert crowd, but there is still something unsettling about a bat’s flight pattern– diving towards you the one moment, and then wheeling back the way they came from the very next second.
In medieval times the bat was thought to be the witch’s familiar, and stories of witches transforming into bats, or using bat wings to make flight potions for broomsticks are centuries old. The idea of vampires transforming into bats is more recent– the blood-sucking bat species of the world are a new world discovery. The erratic patterns of a bat in flight have inspired myths of bats as trickster spirits, and their emergence from caves and other underground hiding places connects them with the undead, the underworld, and messengers from hell.
In 1980, the residents of Austin were less concerned with these historical superstitions. They had their own to worry about. Fears ran thru the town that the sudden increase in downtown bat housing would cause an unprecedented rabies outbreak. Others feared that walking under the bridge might lead to cases of Histoplasmosis and that those who swam or canoed in the lake would be subject to Leptospirosis. Plans were drawn up to erect a guano-catching net under the bridge, and the local newspapers were full of headlines decrying the “menace” of the town’s newest flying inhabitants. It took Bat Conservation International moving their headquarters to Austin, and over a decade of re-education, for the citizens of Austin to adjust to these strange creatures’ fondness for their new urban home.
Today, of course, the bats are as much a part of Austin as the ubiquitous music festivals and the “Keep Austin Weird” t-shirts in horrible garish tie-dye. Unlike those other two, the bats remain one of my favorite parts of the city, and one of the only things that makes summer in Texas tolerable. Sitting out on the porch as twilight fades the sky, I like to watch the bats work their way over to my neighborhood from the river, two, three, a half dozen at a time, chasing the bugs further out into the night. During the day, I have no fear of Histoplasmosis, and happily walk the lake path under the bridge, listening to the bats squeak as they talk in their sleep. Messages from the underworld. Tricksters of the night.