Thoughtlessness can cost lives

I’d wanted to get photos of our local flying foxes, but not quite under these circumstances. I really hope it was not a malicious act, and I’m going to assume it was just thoughtlessness, when someone decided to light a fire to destroy weeds under the local flying fox camp on Saturday.

It doesn’t look much, but the smoke and flames are enough to cause the flying foxes to flee; photo by Andrew Roberts

We were driving home from a great day rock-platforming, feeling smug having got photos of a couple of nudibranchs we’d not seen before (more on them in a future post), when we saw smoke in the valley. As we got closer, we saw dense smoke and flying foxes from the camp that’s been there for decades flapping around in a panic. Many headed east to a stand of camphor laurels there.

Flying foxes fleeing their camp; photo by Andrew Roberts

Now it’s birthing season (September to late November), and the females hold their single babies enfolded in their wings for the first three weeks after they are born. If they are startled, they are likely to drop them, and the babies may fall into the flames or onto burnt ground and never recover or be recovered. Since females have only one a year, the infant mortality rate is naturally high, and they don’t breed until they are  two and a half years old or so, it’s a problem.

The world turned upside-down; photo by Andrew Roberts

The smoke died down eventually, although we could still hear flames crackling. I called a couple of wildlife carer groups and Parks and Wildlife, who said they’d send an emergency ranger out, but after we’d hung around for an hour or so taking lots of photos and videos, no one had turned up, so we went home.

Flying foxes flap their wings to cool down; photo by Andrew Roberts

Grey-headed flying foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus) are nomadic and go back to the same camp season after season. In summer, they’re around here to breed; in winter they move north, always following the blossom, nectar and fruits they eat. Numbers ranging from six thousand to thirty thousand individuals have been counted in some camps.

At dusk, the adults fly out to feed, leaving the babies “parked” in crèches in the camp. One of the cutest sights I have seen was at a wildlife carer’s place – six flying-fox babies hanging upside-down (for them it’s right-way-up) from a wire clothes-airer, snuffling around for the bottle of formula they were about to get.

They grow into quite large mammals, some say primates. Their wingspans can reach a metre and each can weigh up to a kilogram. Seeing a large colony fly out for evening feeding, either individually or in small groups, is an awesome sight. A small group is feeding regularly at night at my place and I’m glad they have found food here.

They have large, liquid eyes, part of what makes them so appealing (to those of us that like them, that is). The orange fur around the neck is distinctive. And I’ve never felt a softer leather than the wing of a flying fox in care I met once. The critter itself was unafraid and sniffled me curiously, even sticking a “finger” in my ear and up my nose – I fell in love with it at once! (Yeah, I’m weird like that.)

Strange fruit – roosting flying foxes

On the negative side, they are noisy and smelly, especially in wet and humid summers. Their gut empties about 20 minutes after they have eaten, so the forest floor underneath them is stinky and squishy. The animals themselves have a strong, musty smell. Altogether you can identify them from quite a way off.

They are listed as “vulnerable” (facing a high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future, unless the factors threatening their survival go away) because their numbers have dwindled considerably due to loss of natural habitat and food supply – humans taking over their food supply and killing them because they are thought to be disease-ridden and fruit-destroying as well as the nuisance value of smell and noise. Too often we see their bodies stretched out across high-tension electricity wires. It is illegal to cause harm to them in any way.

It’s true they can carry lissavirus and hendra virus.  (UPDATE on hendra virus – see the comments section.) Two people have died in Australia from lissavirus – bat carers who contracted the disease after handling the bats. Lissavirus is related to rabies, so it’d be a nasty way to die. This creates fear in people.

Twenty-one horses have died in June-August this year alone from hendra virus, many of these locally. The source of the hendra is, unfortunately, the flying foxes. Horses, especially race horses, are seen as more valuable than flying foxes, so there’s a lot of paranoia about these megabats.

Some schools have flying foxes roosting in the trees planted in the grounds, or nearby, and some parents are fearful of their children contracting diseases. Plus they’re seen as ugly and there’s always the “creature of the night” factor.

Commercial orchard-owners here have covered their acres of their fruit trees with netting to keep off flying foxes and birds. There have been unsuccessful attempts to move colonies (shooting, noise-makers), but the flying foxes seem to have long memories and always come back.

There’s a colony in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, and the 22,000 flying foxes were destroying rare tree specimens. There have been attempts to remove them over several decades. Of course they have to go somewhere, and some people are worried they will end up in  their suburban gardens. Others are afraid that if they do leave the Botanic Gardens, suburban trees will be cut down to remove the bats. Orchardists are worried about loss of income.

But flying foxes are invaluable in the ecosystem, and we might suffer from their extinction. One website says:

“They move pollen and seeds over vast areas of forest. The pollen is carried on their fur between flowering trees which can be many kilometres apart. Many Australian trees, especially eucalypts, need pollen from another tree of the same species to make fertile seed. Rainforest seeds are carried away from parent trees which gives them a chance to germinate and grow. Flying-foxes are essential in maintaining many ecosystems because they are able to move pollen and seeds over long distances and across cleared ground, thus linking patches of native vegetation. Birds and insects don’t fly the long distances needed. The clearing of native vegetation in the last two centuries has removed much of it and has left the remainder scattered in isolated patches.”

I suspect our local flying foxes came back eventually – it’s business as usual in the colony today. I feel bad about assuming the worst, but I know some people would like to get rid of them. It’d be hard to move them on, but that doesn’t stop attempts. They are too important to lose, and anyway they don’t need to have a “use” – they deserve to live just because they are.

[Update – as of February 2014, they have not come back. Humans 1, flying foxes 0]

Guidelines on flying foxes for landholders:

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7 Responses to Thoughtlessness can cost lives

  1. joan knapp says:

    I have fond memories of flying foxes visiting the papaw trees outside my window in Brisbane. They’d hang upside down eating ripe fruit. We were a little ambivalent about them because they were taking our fruit. But they provided entertainment with their slurping as they enjoyed their meal. They left quite a mess on the ground from that too.

    • Joy Window says:

      Glad you enjoyed them! I feel sorry for people who find them offensive, and I would probably not be so sympathetic if I lived right next to a large noisy colony and couldn’t move away. And I don’t have any fruit trees I want to save (for some reason they don’t go for my mangoes), so I’m talking from a position of not being affected by them. They are such characters!

  2. Cheryl Cochran says:

    Hi Joy
    Two wildlife carers did attend the camp at Rock Valley after your call but had left before you returned. They reported that the smoke was from burning off further up the block and a case of the wind blowing the smoke over the bats causing them to fly into the air. So it wasnt malicious thankfully but more a case of the wind changing direction.

    • Joy Window says:

      Thanks, Cheryl! I thought you guys might have beaten me to it and left before I got there, but expected to beat National Parks and talk to them. I took photos and video of the live flames and burnt ground just outside, inside and near the front gate (the colony is to the north of that area above the small creek) in case prosecution was necessary, but I’m satisfied it was not malicious. I’m just happy the colony is back to its chirpy self.
      You guys do a fantastic job keeping watch and taking care of the damaged ones and orphans of many species.

  3. Denis Wilson says:

    There’s a lot of crazy and ill-informed hysteria about Flying Foxes.
    Horse people are wrongly blaming them for Hendra virus problems.
    What about the mice and cats which live on all Horse studs?
    Nobody is studying them as possible vectors for the disease. From what I hear, they’re far more likely to be the link.

  4. Kathy says:

    Hi Joy. Thanks for opening up this complex debate. I think Denis has made a good point that there have been ill-formed reports about the Hendra virus. It would be good if there was more money spent on discovering the vector, rather than the negative guesswork that has gone on. Unfortunately in the last case, the fate of the dog got more media coverage and not the potential backlash for the “bats”. Good to hear your local colony is ok. If readers have never “met” a flying -fox up close, try to get to see one face to face – they all act like the one you met. If there is a carer, ask them to show you an individual with outstretched wings where you can see the arms attached to the wings – it is so close to human!

    • Joy Window says:

      And isn’t that just typical of the human race? Jumping in without trying to find out the truth, to the disadvantage of other animals and sometimes ourselves. I sound misanthropic – oh, wait, I am! Still, it’s what’s made us the most successful mammal on the planet – depending on what you call success. Will climb down off my soapbox now.

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