It was Tim Beatley, Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, who got me thinking about bats. In a talk called "Sustaining the City: Urban Ecology", he reminisced about a connection he made with nature during a six-month stay in Sydney, Australia.
In Sidney, every
evening these bats fly off and they go off and
feed. As the light fades the skies fill up with grey-headed flying
foxes [a type of fruit bat]. We thought it was so peculiar that nobody seemed to be paying
attention to this amazing phenomenon. It was the most
important thing about where we lived and yet, again, it was the thing
that most everyone around us just was not paying attention to or just
had forgotten about it perhaps.
In some ways it has become a metaphor for those things in
cities that are wondrous and awe-inspiring and about the nature
around us that we are not paying attention to. So, where are the
grey-headed flying foxes in Washington? I guess that is my question.
Then in the Q&A session he was reminded that they also have bats in Austin, TX and they’re a very big deal, ya know. To which Beatley replied:
Well, you know the story about Austin is a marvelous
story. Austin has these Mexican free-tailed bats that arrive every
summer. They are migratory and they suddenly started residing
underneath the Congress Avenue Bridge, which is a major bridge in
Austin, and it is now the largest urban bat colony in the world. It
has now gone from being sort of amusing to the colony being beloved,
and they have a batfest every year. You can go on dinner bat cruises
when night arrives and these bats fly. They named–is it their hockey
team?–-the Bats. They have gone a little batty for bats in Austin, but
it is a marvelous story.
And sure enough, in the spring thousands of pregnant female bats migrate north from Mexico to give birth, making their homes under this bridge in downtown Austin. By August the pups have joined their moms in the nightly hunt for food and the swarm totals 750,000 to 1.5 million bats going forth to eat between 10 and 30,000 pounds of insects – good job!
Once feared or considered a nuisance, the bats’ public image took a turn for the better in 1986 when Bat Conservation International moved its headquarters to Austin and some good public education turned them into a popular tourist attraction. Public schools have Bat Awareness Teams, no less. And because Austinites know how to par-tay, they celebrate these ugly blind critters with a yearly Batfest, to be held September 1-2 this year. There are so many activities (music, food, crafts, surely drinking though that website won’t say so), they need a Bat hotline just to keep track of them. Those bat-watching cruises will be booked solid.
So if I were one of the lucky Austin gardenbloggers you better believe I’d be saying "Let’s all meet under the Congress Avenue Bridge this Saturday. And don’t forget your umbrella (and not for rain, ya know)." Meanwhile, my humble bat house (right) has yet to attract a single bat.
But enough about those lucky Austinites. Let’s go back to the good professor’s question: Where are the
grey-headed flying foxes in your city? What’s "wondrous and awe-inspiring about the nature
around us that we’re not paying attention to"? Maybe as gardeners we pay attention to plants but tune out the animal life around us, like the 260 species of birds in my area, of which I can identify about 8 on a good day. Maybe it’s the insect sounds I’m not really tuned in to.
Well, at least we’re outdoors where we can hear ’em, right? And when it comes to nature awareness, I’ll bet on a gardener any day, even if our attention is a little lopsided toward the plant kingdom.
Photo credit: Batfest.