Steve Huey is a man with a caricature of a bat on his business card. He has specially designed Beanie Baby bats to sell, and he offers a big bat deal: Stay overnight in his hotel, and a portion of the room rate goes to bat conservation, earning the guest an official bat adoption certificate.

Around here, no one thinks that's weird.

Austin is home to the largest urban bat colony in North America, and most locals -- along with hordes of tourists -- love the tiny furry critters, all 1.5 million that roost under a downtown bridge and fly out nightly between April and October to forage for insects. They do it in front of an audience of hundreds.

"It's like a rite of passage: If you're in Austin, you have to see the bats," said Huey, sales director for the Radisson Hotel and Suites, located at the foot of the Congress Avenue Bridge, which is home to the bats.

"It's like going to San Antonio and seeing the Alamo -- no disrespect to the Alamo," he said.

Nightly, the spectators arrive as the sun begins to wane in the west, lawn chairs and blankets in tow, picnics packed and cameras in hand. The lowly bat may be the most hated and feared mammal in some parts, but not here. This is, as many like to say, the most progressive, anything-goes city in Texas.

"It's a very cool thing," said Craig Saper, who on this warm evening came to watch the bats wearing a bright blue velveteen Austin Powers suit replete with white ruffled shirt, oversize glasses and a fake set of bad front teeth. He and his friends are videotaping the bats for a promotional film they will show next month to high school athletes about local "hot spots."

"It makes Austin unique," he said.

It also makes Austin money -- an estimated $8 million annually from the 100,000 visitors who come to view the bats each season, say tourism and bat conservation officials.

Need a hotel? Check into the Radisson (look for the airport shuttle with a bat painted on the side) and get a free upgrade with the special bat conservation package. Or try the Four Seasons with its second-floor three-bedroom Congressional Suite, which has the special bat-viewing balcony. Need a burger, a beer and a view of the bats? Try the Town Lake T.G.I. Friday's. How about some Bordeaux with your bats instead? Go to the swanky Shoreline Grill next door. Better yet, some Batinis and bats? That's at the Hyatt Regency on the south side of the bridge.

Just blocks from the bats' roost, the Bitter End Brewery makes Bat City Lager (its second-most-popular brew), and along the bridge, hawkers sell bat T-shirts and bat glow sticks, next to the bat experts who answer tourists' questions. There is a Bat Hotline to call for nightly bat flight times, and bat cruise boats that traverse Town Lake and wait underneath the Congress Avenue Bridge just as the mammals fly out. There is the specially commissioned public art purple bat sculpture ("Night Wing") on Congress Avenue, and the reports by local television meteorologists, who track not only the weather, but also the nightly bat flight whenever it makes the Doppler radar.

When a minor league hockey team came to Austin in 1996, it considered, but rejected, typical Texas monikers such as the Outlaws, Rough Riders or Rattlers because it wanted a name with "a distinctly Austin feel," team spokesman Glen Norman said. It picked the Austin Ice Bats, of course.

"We love our bats," said Eileen Reid-Buesing, spokeswoman for the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau.

But it wasn't always so.

The migratory arrival of the Mexican free-tailed bats to the Congress Avenue Bridge began in 1982, right after the structure, which connects downtown to south Austin, was rehabilitated. Texas Transportation Department engineers had built a four-lane bridge of concrete box beams, each separated by a crevice 3/4 to 11/2 inches wide to allow for expansion. Each crevice was 16 to 18 inches deep and was capped by the bridge's road surface. The department's special projects engineer, Mark Bloschock, said the crevices created, quite unintentionally, an ideal home for the bats, which seek dark, warm, narrow habitats in which to sleep during the day and to nurse their pups, born each June.

"Bats Sink Teeth Into City," read the newspaper headlines 20 years ago. Petitions to burn out the bats with a blow torch were circulated throughout the city. "Mass Fear in the Air as Bats Invade City," the local paper proclaimed.

That's when Merlin Tuttle, founder of Bat Conservation International in Milwaukee, moved his organization to town and began his campaign to save the bats.

"He came to talk to city officials about bats and their ecological value," said Barbara French, a biologist for the organization. "Just this colony alone is eating tens of thousands of insects in a single night, including the moths that lay eggs that eat crops and especially the corn earworm that attacks corn, cotton and tobacco."

Tuttle used "brilliant, non-confrontational environmentalism," recalled Bloschock, whose job with the Transportation Department today is to evaluate which state-built bridges and culverts should be used as man-made roosts for bats, which migrate to all parts of Texas. "You don't get in anybody's face; you deal with the facts and you educate people and let them make their decisions."

It worked. The bat colony was left alone and now it flies in every March from Mexico and leaves with the first cold front in October or November. The Congress Avenue Bridge is surrounded by bat-viewing spots, while the bridge sidewalk also is crammed with spectators nightly.

Bat Conservation International has grown from a one-man crusade into an organization that employs more than two dozen, works to protect and restore bats and their habitats worldwide, and educates the public about the mammal vs. the myth. Its mission, the organization states, is to "facilitate win-win solutions that help both bats and people."

That's just the way Amy Augustyniak sees it. She had brought her canvas chair to the knoll at the southeast end of the Congress Avenue Bridge, along with her bottle of water and her knitting. The bat twittering was loud enough to compete with the noise of bridge traffic overhead.

"In the scheme of nature, what they do for us is such a gift," she said as she knitted a white wool sweater and awaited the emergence of the bats. Dusk arrived and the bats began to stream out from under the bridge like a thick ribbon of black smoke as they flew east over the city in search of moths and other bugs.

"I don't know what it would be like to be without them. All these mosquitoes that we still have -- without them it would be disgusting," she said. "They're helping us out and we're helping them out at the same time."

-- Sylvia Moreno

People line Austin's Congress Avenue Bridge at dusk to watch 1.5 million bats emerge -- an event repeated nightly from April to October. Renovations unintentially made the bridge an ideal bat habitat.Bats stream from crevices beneath the bridge to feed on insects, a benefit Austin residents have grown to appreciate.