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Hanging in there - rehabilitating injured flying foxes


 

 
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Mandi Griffith gives a tour of an aviary complex that has been purpose built for the rehabilitation of flying foxes.     

 
There is a range of bats in the aviary complex, from juveniles to adults. Most of the bats come through wildlife carers using a veterinary clinic where Mandi works so they have all been injured in some way.
In some cases this gives them their name. Thor, for instance, survived a horrendous lightning storm,
Cinders survived when her mother was electrocuted on power lines,
Rubberlegs has an injured leg giving him a odd gait and earning him his odd name.
There are many cases of net caught bats. Householders use the nets to protect their fruit trees but these are undetectable in the dark and cause horrific burn-like injuries to flying foxes. Nets that are securely taut and extend to the ground are not a hazard. Wildlife carers are tirelessly working to educate homeowners on the dangers of fruit tree netting.
Left: Rubber legs
Below right: Silver Ghost

 
Another common source of injuries is barbed wire, especially if it is near trees favoured by the bats. The bats can become ensnared and may be left hanging there for days, still alive while people driving by who may see them assume they are already dead and do not go to their aid.

At present the aviary houses grey-headed flying foxes, some little reds and a black flying fox.
Most of the animals can be rehabilitated and then returned to the wild.
Whilst grey headed flying foxes are endemic to the Sydney region, little reds and the blacks are generally found further up the NSW coast. For this reason, they are transported to mid NSW for release.

 
However there are some, whose injuries mean they can never be released back into the wild, for example when there is extensive wing membrane damage. 
The very handsome Silver Ghost, for instance, has been a resident for some 15 years, having been greatly injured by barbed wire. Other similar non flying long term residents (Cinders, Diva  (see left) and Rubber Legs) are used for educational activities and still others are companion bats, like the very elderly Sheila, whose role is to help settle the wild bats that are brought in for short term rehabilitation stay in the aviary.

 
These resident bats are all listed on a special license approved by DECCW and it is not possible to retain non releasable bats without such prior approval. The bats are fed fruit and foliage and some develop individual tastes for particular foods, such as Silver Ghost who prefers green grapes.
They are quite territorial when feeding and are very noisy, squabbling among themselves.
The aviary can be opened as one large aviary with a three metre high roof, or divided into smaller sections, including two hospital aviaries, and a separate quarantine section for new arrivals, both of which have a lower roof to facilitate easy medication of hospitalised animals. There is also a crèche section for the very young juveniles, such as Thor.
Babies are hand-raised in individual carers’ homes and join baby bat creche at around 13 weeks of age (click here to read Vanessa and baby Thomas's story).

Right: Mandi and Rubber legs

 
 Individuals spend a minimum of four weeks in creche, the first two weeks in a dedicated baby creche area, after which time the sliding door is opened to the main aviary and they are free to intermingle with the adults. This gives the juveniles a chance to learn ‘bat etiquette’ from the older bats and gives them ample space to finesse their flying skills. When the bats are deemed fit for release they are moved to a release facility such as the one at Gosford, just north of Sydney. Immediately prior to release they are banded, and microchipped.
Amazingly, some released bats have found their way back to the release facility after being injured in the wild after long periods of time. There are also records of some cheeky females, having been released years earlier, returning to the safety of the release cage to deposit their baby for the night, before heading out to forage for the night without the burden of carrying baby. These females return in the morning, collect their baby and go home to the wild colony.
Bats do form friendships. One handraised bat named Yoda was creched at Mandi’s and during her stay, learned how to open the sliding door between the creche and flight aviary. When ready, she was released from Matcham. Six months later she was injured in the wild and made her way back to Matcham to get medical help. When returned to Mandi for treatment, she was placed in the 'hospital' section of the aviary, but decided that was not for her, opened the sliding door and rejoined her former companions in the main flight aviary. Two others, who had been banded (and had sequential banding numbers) before release were found together in a follow up research study conducted two years later .. So they had obviously been hanging out together over all those months, communicating on where they would forage and maintaining the friendship bond.

 
Sadly, many of the injuries caused to bats are as a result of humans, and many of the injuries could be prevented if people were aware of the repercussions of their actions.
People see flying foxes visiting a backyard fig tree and decide to throw a loose net over believing this will keep the fruit safe. Not so, all it does is entangle wildlife – and if not secured on a frame it’s not effective anyway.
Birds, bats, rats and possums can still reach the fruit.
Most people are appalled when they see the injuries they have unwittingly caused to the flying foxes.
If wildlife carers can raise public awareness even simply on the dangers of fruit tree netting, then we will all be happy.

 
Flying foxes are vital to the maintained health of the iconic Australian rainforests.
A flying fox visiting a back garden fruit tree might be a little noisy or a bit messy, but we should remember the grey headed flying fox’s habitat is overlapping into suburbia as we humans, have impacted on theirs, through deforestation and urbanisation.
Their numbers have decreased by 30% over the last ten years.
There is a genuine concern for the long tem survival of the species in the wild if we fail to recognise their value and adequately protect them and their habitats.

 
Mandi Griffith was recorded for A Question of Balance by Paul McQueen. Images are from Mandi Griffith. Text was prepared by Victor Barry, March 2011.

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