If this were the beginning of a scary movie that may be a terrible thing. Who can forget the terror that sweet little birds unleashed on a small California town in “The Birds”? Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 movie made us suspicious of everything from canaries to birds of prey. (I’ll always remember the image of Suzanne Pleshette, as the grammar school teacher, lying dead and bloody on the school’s front steps.)
It only took one movie about angry attack birds to forever change our impression of those feathered “friends.” But think of the hundreds of movies that vilify bats. They are portrayed as blood suckers, as vampires — the undead, caped, villains who sweep into the bedrooms of Victorian maidens seducing them into eternal regret. Lets face it, bats are just plain creepy.
However, like so many other things, Hollywood got bats completely wrong. Bats are as much our friends as are birds (except for those in the Hitchcock movie who didn’t like us at all). About 70 percent are insectivores, devouring mosquitoes and other pests, thus eliminating the need for insecticides. Many are frugivoers (fruit eaters) and perform important roles in ecology, such as pollination and dispersing seeds.
In Austin, Texas, hundreds of people gather under the Congress Avenue bridge at dusk to see the swarm of about 1.5 million bats take to the sky. They create a dark cloud of ravenous insect exterminators. It is the world’s largest urban bat colony.
But Austin has nothing on Columbus. We have more than one huge bat colony right here. I was lucky enough to see them this week. An inky mass of thousands shrouded a patch of sky, flying just above the shops on Fifth Street South, right across from the Princess Theater.
I was in the car with my friend, Jyl Barefield. “Look!,” she said, “those are the bats!” They moved like a flock of birds, or a school of fish. All changed direction at once, as if the messages to turn or rise were telepathically transmitted, as if they moved with one mind. It was fascinating.
We watched for only a few seconds, and they were gone. But I was hooked. Just like bird watchers, or anyone who observes nature, I have a pair of binoculars and am planning my next sighting.
My friend Brian Roberts tells me one nesting spot is under the eaves of Franklin Academy’s auditorium. I have not seen them leave there, yet.
Unfortunately, like everything else, they have a season, usually March through November. So I do not have much time left for bat-watching.
Our area has promoted the historic houses as practically the only thing to attract tourist dollars. But Austin has turned bat-watching into a huge draw for an entirely different sort of traveler. Visitors come from all over the world to see the bats. That city erected an 18-foot high sculpture caller “Night Wings.” The city’s official drink is the “Battini.” All this to honor an attraction that cost nothing to install or maintain.
I know a lot of people will think I have “bats in my belfry,” but really, is that such a bad thing? Perhaps we should promote these little insect eaters as another Golden Triangle tourist enticement.
Adele Elliott, a New Orleans native, moved to Columbus after Hurricane Katrina. Email reaches her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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