Bamberger’s Folly – Huh?

I’ve forgotten just when this happened, but it’s all true…

When our bat cave was about finished, we held a big event at the site. We invited every bat scientist we knew of as well as TV, radio and newspaper writers. They came in droves. This event was in 1998. It was the first time the word “chiroptorium” was ever used; it being authored by my son, David K. Bamberger, and my wife, Margaret C. Bamberger. Here’s how they arrived at the name. In science bats fall into an order called “chiroptera” (it’s pronounced KI-rop-tur-ah) which means hand wing and of course “auditorium” which is a big place to see a show. We have submitted it to three well-known dictionaries and expect that it will soon be an accepted word.

Here is the chiroptorium as it was just before the application of the gunite. The framework was of iron rebar rods – 20 tons of them, welded and tied together then covered with metal lath forming 8,000 square feet of surface area. Scientists at the time thought that our man made habitat would hold one million bats. Photograph taken by Susan Sander.

Shortly after the big scientist and media event, gunite was blown onto the steel framework. This was the only part of the construction that we contracted out ~ this was done by a company that builds swimming pools. The black bottom was of tar painted on to prevent moisture from weakening the structure. Photograph taken by Susan Sander.

As the picture illustrates, we had covered the structure with earth. Bat biologists told us that “seeding” bat houses by capturing bats and introducing them had never ever been successful, but they thought with a structure of this size it just might work. Two attempts were made bringing bats, each time but to no avail – they left that evening and never returned. Over a two year period, we witnessed one hundred or so bats that found our chiroptorium on their own, but they didn’t stay long. Upon investigating I found numerous dead bats on the floor below an observation room window. Further investigation revealed that they had crashed into the window and I made an erroneous assumption. I thought that the bats’ echolocation was not working off the glass. . . . It was a long and anxious wait, but then a bat biologist from England, Allison Walsh, paid us a visit in 2003 and after two days of scientific study determined that there was a streak of light reflecting off the wall creating an effect on the glass that to the circling bats appeared as an opening to them. She said, particularly in small spaces (our main dome is forty foot wide and 20 foot high), bats use their eyes as well as echolocation thus they slammed into the window, injuring themselves and therefore finding our chiroptorium very unfriendly . . . . Within days we covered the three observation windows with cardboard – and now comes a series of events I call “Bamberger’s Folly – HUH!” Photograph taken by Lorraine Benini.

It’s late in the summer of 2003 when a very diligent reporter for the San Antonio Express News calls – “Mr. Bamberger, I’m doing a follow up story on your chiroptorium, how many bats do you have?” I’m a bit embarrassed as at the time the number is small, say maybe 100, so I try to be funny ~ “I can’t tell you exactly how many, but they cost me $5,000.00 each” ~ “You don’t have any bats then, so I’m going to do a column on Bamberger’s Folly” and so the story comes out, Bamberger spent as much on a bat house as he did on his own house – the chiroptorium is Bamberger’s Folly.

But wait ~ This was at the same time that the bat biologist, Allison Walsh, was here and within days of us covering the windows with cardboard a migrating group of bats – my estimate was 20,000 – found our cave and moved in. I called another of our media event guests who was from Channel 12, a San Antonio television station, who promptly sent a film crew up and this spectacle shows at 6 and 9 p.m. on the nightly news just a few days after the Bamberger’s Folly story. . . . completely exonerating me and putting egg on the face of the hapless reporter. Photograph taken by Lorraine Benini.

Scientists from Boston University have developed a infrared computerized camera and an algorithm that can process its images to count the bats as they swarm out of our cave. They visit us the first two days of every summer month. A few days after they have been here with their equipment, they call us and tell us how many bats we have. This year they were not able to do the October census. Now at then end of this summer the population has swelled to what I believe is 200,000 Mexican free-tail bats and a small number of another Hill Country species called Cave myotis. The emergence is awesome! Sometimes lasting twenty-one minutes. They come out and form a serpentine column. Scientists believe this is a defense behavior for protection from the hungry eyes of red tail hawks and owls. Photograph taken by Lorraine Benini.

While most all of our guests observe the evening emergence very few have ever witnessed the bats return. However our good friend and volunteer, Chris Johnson, was on hand to witness this extraordinary event. He is adding it to this blog posting.

Thanks, David. Chris Johnson here, just to add a few relevant links. However, let me begin by saying that I’ve been waiting ages for someone to post photos of the chiroptorium’s construction to this blog, but just before I was going to start a formal campaign of nagging David, he came-up with this post. Wonderful. However, having seen one of David’s slide shows about the chiroptorium, I’m fairly sure there are even more photos that’re worth seeing. So, post comments asking about those photos and you might get lucky. (David, I’ll scan the slides for you, if necessary.)

Now, those links I mentioned…. First, there’s a high-definition (720p) movie I shot of the bats returning to the chiroptorium on August 14, 2010. A search of YouTube for “Bamberger chiroptorium” turns-up a number of videos, but this one seems to be unique in showing the return of the bats, and is unusual for being high-definition. (See my associated blog post for further details.)

Second, for those of you with QuickTime installed on your machines (that’ll be all Mac users, and some Windows users), there’s a QuickTime VR spherical panorama I shot inside the main (first and largest) chamber of the chiroptorium back in December of 2007. The chamber has changed a bit since then, as more bat boxes were added to the ceiling in February, 2008, but this panorama is still pretty much the best and only way for most of us to get a good look at the inside of the finished chiroptorium, as access is tightly restricted both to avoid disturbing the bats, and to avoid disturbing the various ongoing studies of the developing ecosystem inside the structure.

Chiroptorium Main Chamber. Click to View.

More details on that experience, the chiroptorium, and the challenges associated with that panorama, are available from the relevant post on my blog.

Finally, there’s this aerial view of the chiroptorium from March, 2009, which was obtained with the help of my good friend Jerry Gatlin who happens to be a pilot. Jerry did the low flying and aggressive banking, while I rattled around in the back of the plane shooting the photos.


There are so many, many good causes that need financial help. Preserving the earth itself is important. So, if you would like to help us with a donation, we are a 501(c)(3) private operating foundation and gifts are deductible to the extent of the law. You can send your contributions to: Bamberger Ranch Preserve, 2341 Blue Ridge Drive, Johnson City, TX 78636 or donate through your computer by using PayPal.

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