My children were standing on the corner, looking up at something black on the power lines above. "A bat! How horrible," an old lady muttered. Beside a dead adult flying fox was a tiny moving body, a young one clinging to the wire, unable to fly. One unfortunate consequence of a large flying fox colony so close to an urban area has been the electrocution of mother flying foxes on power lines. Surprisingly, some of the young, found still clinging to their dead mothers, survive the shock.
While the children kept watch, I phoned the electricity authority. Within 30 minutes two jovial linesmen safely removed the baby grey-headed flying fox from the wires. We wrapped the little creature in a handkerchief to keep it warm and took it to Marcia, a rehabilitator with the Ku-ring-gai Bat Colony Committee. The New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service now requires that bat rehabilitators be trained, and that all orphaned or injured flying foxes be registered and data kept on their growth and recovery. An Australian company has even prepared a special 'flying fox milk-replacer' to feed the orphans. Free of lactose, the formula simulates flying fox milk.
Marcia mixed up the special formula for our orphan, and within moments, he was sucking contentedly on a specially made teat. His deep brown eyes gazed into ours, then slowly closed as he fell asleep in the warmth of Marcia's hands. Every few days, we visited Marcia and the little flying fox she named Boris. She was caring for him so that he could be set free in the autumn when there was plenty of food for him in the wild. We were fascinated with the constant motion of his ears and how his long toes held onto the cloth in which he was wrapped.
After feeding, Marcia held him with his feet down and head up so he could go to the toilet without soiling himself. Then she wrapped him up again and placed him head down in a soft cloth bag kept in a warm place. After Boris was a month old, he could be carried around clinging to our shoulders without fear he would get too cold. His dark fur was soft and glossy and the skin on his wings like velvet. Marcia made sure he was always clean, and he loved being brushed, a substitute for his mother licking him.
When Boris was three months old, we watched him hold onto a clothes drying rack with his feet while he flapped his wings. Marcia had begun giving him finely chopped apple with the special flying fox milk powder added to it. At first he only lapped the milk but gradually began to sample the apple. In the wild, he would have been drinking only his mother's milk until he could fly, normally at about four months.
The next time we saw Boris, he had been moved outside into a large cage with eight other orphan flying foxes. They were learning to eat whole fruit, holding it in one foot while gripping a branch with the other. They liked to rest wrapped in their wings, nestling close to each other. Boris now weighed almost five times what he had when we rescued him, and he could fly several yards across the cage.
Sadly, we would not see him any more because our little friend was ready to be placed closer to the colony in a much larger release cage with all the other juveniles hand-reared that summer--about 80 of them. We couldn't visit Boris because he and his friends had to forget people and learn to be flying foxes. Several adult flying foxes who had been injured and had recovered were to be released too.
The Ku-ring-Gai Bat Colony Committee now has the responsibility for releasing orphaned and rehabilitated flying foxes into the colony in Sydney. Each one is banded, measured, and weighed before release. Unfortunately, committee members have found several of those banded in recent years electrocuted on power lines, but we know from the state of each body that the bats were healthy and well-fed. We hope that this small banding project will give us an indication of how long these animals live in the wild and how far they travel.
In the evening, as my family and I watch the flying foxes steadily fly over our house to feed on the flowers of eucalyptus trees or on native figs, we always hope Boris is one of them. --N.P
An orphaned grey-headed flying fox baby clings to the warmth and security of a helping human hand.
The "bat mums" gather for tea and show off the latest accomplishments of their baby flying foxes. All are trained rehabilatators. From left to right: Linda Collins, Ronda McClymont, and Marcia Grew.