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I was driving down the highway in Austin one day when I noticed a large black cloud emanating from downtown somewhere. My first thought was that there was a raging fire going, and the pyromaniac in me wanted to investigate. But as I drew closer, I could see that the cloud was particulate in nature, not at all like smoke. Killer bees? A plague of locusts? A swarm of flying monkeys? I was more curious than ever, so I continued manuevering the car toward the source of the unusual cloud.

I ended up downtown, near the Congress Avenue Bridge. I pulled over, got out of the car, and simply gawked. As I stood watching, thousands of tiny black bats were pouring out from beneath the bridge, flying off in all directions in great inky clouds of wings and fur and fangs. I noticed that there were a number of other spectators here as well, and some were even camped out on the grass with blankets and picnic baskets.

This was my first encounter with Austin's immense bat population-- the largest in any urban area in America. Austin's colony of Mexican Freetail bats has grown to something like 1.25 million bats, all of whom live under the bridge downtown. In the warm months (which, granted, is most of the year) you can go down to the bridge around sunset and watch the bats setting out to enjoy their bloodsucker buffet-- the bats eat 15 tons of insects every night. They come out in a steady stream for about thirty minutes straight.

As Austin continues to burst at the seams with new arrivals from California and elsewhere, it was of course only a matter of time before someone decided to capitalize on the bats and turn them into a tourist attraction. You can now drop big money for a riverboat ride under the bridge, or have dinner at any of several overpriced restaurants with a view of the bridge.

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