Paul first visited Gainesville, Florida, in 2007. Three years later he relocated to the city and has been living there ever since.
Visiting the University of Florida bat barns and bat house and watching the bats emerge at sunset is one of my favorite things to do in Gainesville. I always take friends and family there when they visit.
The experience is special, whatever age you are, or how often you go. It doesn't hurt your wallet either, as watching the bats emerge is completely free; you don't even have to pay for parking.
The bat dwellings are one of the largest occupied bat colonies in the world. As the sun goes down, the bats begin to fly out. There are just a few at first, then more come in flutters until before you know it, there is a steady stream of up to 500,000 bats emerging over a 20-minute period.
When to Visit?
You can potentially see the bats emerge on any evening of the year, but the ideal period to visit is spring through to early summer because twilight is at its longest and also because the bats come out earlier, so it's easier to see them. (During the daytime, there is never really much to see, as the bats, being nocturnal, are inside their homes asleep and should not be disturbed.)
The time to be there is generally about 20 minutes before sunset, as dusk is when the bats begin to emerge and go hunting for insects. You will see more bats when the weather is warm and the temperature is over 65˚F. The worst time to go is when there are high winds, rain, it's cold, or there is stormy weather. In summer, the bats emerge primarily to eat insects. In winter, the bats come out to drink and exercise.
If you intend to visit, my advice is to find out the sunset time on the day of your visit and aim to get there with enough time to park your car and find a good place to stand. If you want to sit, I would advise taking your own chair, as seating is very limited. It can often be quite busy there, in my experience, with over a hundred people watching sometimes.
Location and History of the UF Bat Houses
The bat houses are located on the U.F. campus, on the north side of Museum Road across from Lake Alice. The structures are clearly visible from the road and there is a free place to park close by.
There are two bat barns and one bat house nowadays. The original house was built in 1991 but became overpopulated, which caused severe structural damage (see "The 2009 Bat House Collapse" section below).
Suitability and Accessibility
- Suitable for all ages. Children love it.
- Wheelchair accessibility is good.
- Parking and access is free.
Are the Bats Dangerous to Humans?
The bats can sometimes swoop down towards the people watching; this can be alarming if you aren't expecting it. According to the Florida Museum of Natural History, this is because flying insects are drawn to the carbon dioxide in human breath and the bats swoop down to eat the insects. The bats won't attack or hurt humans unless they are seriously provoked.
Urine and Guano
Unfortunately, it is possible to be hit by falling urine or guano when the bats fly over you. The bat houses don't generally smell too good either, in my experience, especially if you are downwind from them.
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An estimated 1 in 200 bats carries rabies; you should therefore show an appropriate level of caution. Unlike most rabid animals, they don't become aggressive; rather they are more likely to be found on the ground in a lethargic state. For that reason, you should never pick up bats on the ground, as the bat may bite if it feels threatened. Instead, you should report it to the U.F. Environmental Health and Safety Pest Management Services, or the University Police.
- Never pick up a bat from the ground (see section on rabies above).
- Never throw anything at the bats or the bat dwellings.
- Never intentionally disturb the bats in any way.
- Bats can be troubled by high-pitched noises, including children shouting or shrieking.
- Always keep a safe distance from the bat dwellings. Don't go beyond the fence.
The 2009 Bat House Collapse
The original bat house was built in 1991 to house a colony that had previously lived in the attic of Johnson Hall, which was destroyed by fire. In 2009, the original bat house collapsed due to issues caused by overcrowding and bat urine soaking into the wooden structure and weakening it.
Around a hundred bats died and many others had to find alternative homes in the Gainesville area (they like attics and crevices in buildings).
Within a matter of months, however, the original bat house was restored and a bat barn was built beside it, doubling the population capacity from 200,000 to 400,000. Later, a second bat barn was added, making three structures in total and providing capacity for up to 750,000 bats.
What Type of Bats Live There?
According to the Florida Museum of Natural History, the bats mainly belong to the Brazilian free-tailed bat species Tadarida brasiliensis (also known as Mexican free-tailed bats). Their name comes from their distinctive tail, which looks a bit like a mouse’s tail. Brazilian free-tailed bats are common across Florida, especially in urban areas. They like to form their colonies in buildings and under bridges.
The Southeastern bat, Myotis austroriparius, and Evening bat, Nycticeius humeralis, also live in the structures.
A typical colony of Mexican free-tailed bats numbers between 50 and 20,000 bats. Each bat will eat between 500 and 1,000 insects in a single night.
The colony of bats at the UF Bat House is therefore seen as being an excellent natural way of controlling the insect population in the local area and the colony is believed to consume over a ton of insects on a good night.
3 Interesting Facts About Brazilian Free-Tailed Bats
- They are the official state bat of Oklahoma and Texas.
- An image of a Mexican free-tailed bat is used for the Bacardi rum brand.
- During WWII, the US experimented with a weapon known as a "bat bomb." The never-implemented plan was for bomb cases holding hibernating Brazilian free-tailed bats to be dropped at dawn over Japan. The bats would be released in mid-air and would then scatter and seek out shelter. Each bat would have an incendiary device attached to it, which would be set off by a timer, the idea being to simultaneously set off multiple fires across Japan.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Paul Goodman