Flying-foxes

Flying-foxes are nomadic mammals that travel up and down the east coast of Australia feeding on native blossoms and fruits, spreading seeds and pollinating native plants.

Flying-foxes (also called fruit bats) are members of a large group of mammals called bats. Bats are the only group of mammals capable of sustained flight.

What do they look like and where do they live?

There are 3 species of flying-fox which are native to NSW.

Black flying-fox (Pteropus alecto) The black flying-fox (Pteropus alecto) is almost completely black in colour with only a slight rusty red-coloured collar and a light frosting of silvery grey on its belly. They have an average weight of 710 grams and are one of the largest bat species in the world. Their wingspan can be more than 1 metre.

The black flying-fox is common to the coastal and near coastal areas of northern Australia from Shark Bay in Western Australia to Lismore in New South Wales. It is also found in New Guinea and Indonesia.

Distribution

Black flying-fox (Pteropus alecto) indicative species distribution map

Grey-headed flying-fox (Pteropus poliocephalus)The grey-headed flying-fox (Pteropus poliocephalus) is easily recognisable by its rusty reddish-coloured collar, grey head and hairy legs. Adults have an average wingspan up to 1 metre and can weigh up to 1 kilogram. It is also the most vulnerable species because it competes with humans for prime coastal habitat along the south-east Queensland, NSW and Victorian coasts.

Traditional grey-headed flying-fox habitat is located within 200km of the eastern coast of Australia, from Bundaberg in Queensland to Melbourne in Victoria. In 2010, many grey-headed flying-foxes were found roosting and foraging outside these traditional areas; some were found as far inland as Orange and as far south-west as Adelaide.

Distribution

Grey-headed flying-fox (Pteropus poliocephalus) indicative species distribution map

Little red flying-fox (Pteropus scapulatus)The little red flying-fox (Pteropus scapulatus) with a weight of 300–600 grams is the smallest Australian flying-fox and has reddish brown-coloured fur. Little reds will often fly much further inland than other flying-foxes.

Little-red flying-foxes are the most widespread species of megabat in Australia. They occupy a broad range of habitats found in northern and eastern Australia including Queensland, Northern Territory, Western Australia, New South Wales and Victoria.

Distribution

Little red flying-fox (Pteropus scapulatus) indicative species distribution map

What do they eat?

Flying-foxes feed on the nectar and pollen of native blossoms and fruits such as figs. Flying-foxes are beneficial to the health of vegetation, as they spread seeds and pollinate native plants.

Researchers speculate that flying-fox movements could be related to food scarcity, nectar flows or seasonal variations.

The national monitoring program for the grey-headed flying-fox began on 14 February 2013 and is conducted every three months. This is the biggest census of grey-headed flying-foxes ever undertaken across the species' entire national range. The aim of the census is to deliver a reliable benchmark on the current size of the grey-headed flying-fox population in 2013, and to monitor population trends in the future.

Flying-foxes are increasingly moving into urban areas in search of food and shelter, as a result of the loss of their natural habitat. This can sometimes be problematic for local residents, because of concerns about flying-fox camp health and amenity impacts.

Because the grey-headed flying-fox is listed as a threatened species in NSW, approval is required to disturb or relocate flying-foxes.

The Living with grey-headed flying-foxes fact sheet suggests some simple measures that the community can take to minimise conflict when they are living close to a flying-fox camp.

The Flying-fox Camp Management Policy 2015 empowers land managers, primarily local councils, to work with their communities to manage flying-fox camps effectively.

It provides the framework within which the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) will make regulatory decisions. In particular, the policy strongly encourages local councils and other land managers to prepare camp management plans for sites where the local community is affected.

More information can be found at Flying-Fox Camp Management Policy 2015.

When food is scarce, flying-foxes will target any readily available food sources, including backyard and commercial orchards of stonefruit, pome fruit (such as apples and pears), lychees, paw paw and coffee.

Licensing

An independent review was commissioned in 2008 to assess the validity of the NSW licensing policy for the legal harm (including killing) of flying-foxes. This Flying-fox licensing review determined that shooting is ineffective when larger numbers of flying-foxes visit orchards and is a contributing factor to the decline of the species. In response to the review panel's recommendations, the issuing of licences to harm flying-foxes is being phased out.

Between July 2011 and June 2017, the phase out of licences was accompanied by a Flying-fox netting subsidy program to help eligible growers with the cost of installing exclusion netting. This program has now closed. More information is available from Protecting commercial crops from flying-fox damage.

From 1 July 2015, OEH only issues licences to shoot flying-foxes as a crop protection measure where it considers that flying-fox damage to orchards is the result of special circumstances. Licences will be issued to shoot flying-foxes for the duration of the incursion, subject to strict limits.

Refer to the special circumstances for issuing licences to shoot flying-foxes (PDF 42KB).

Disease - who is at risk?

Flying-fox camps in public places, such as parks, school grounds and residential areas, can sometimes raise concerns about possible health risks for community members. Concerns include flying-fox infections, noise, odour and the impact of flying-fox droppings on houses, cars, and washing.

Human infections with viruses borne by flying-foxes are very rare. In Australia at December 2016, there have been 3 confirmed cases of Australian Bat Lyssavirus in humans. All were in Queensland

Australian Bat Lyssavirus is found in the saliva of infected animals. The virus can only be spread to other animals and people through the bite or scratch of a flying-fox. Australian Bat Lyssavirus is not spread through flying fox urine or droppings.

Detailed NSW Health advice on managing health risks is at Australian Bat Lyssavirus Fact Sheet.

There is no evidence that people can catch Hendra directly from flying-foxes. It is believed that horses catch the Hendra virus when they eat food which has recently been contaminated with an infected flying-fox's urine, saliva or birth products.

Hendra can be transmitted from infected horses to humans following close contact with body fluids, like blood and saliva from infected horses.

There has been a small number of confirmed cases of Hendra virus in humans, all in Queensland.

Detailed NSW Health advice on managing human health risks is at Hendra Virus Fact Sheet.

Detailed NSW Department of Primary Industries advice on managing equine health risks is at Hendra Virus.

There have been no reports of any infections with Hendra virus acquired by wildlife handlers from working with flying-foxes. There is only one report of Australian Bat Lyssavirus infection in a wildlife handler who is thought to have been bitten by an insectivorous bat.

There are no reports of these infections acquired from living in close proximity to flying-fox camps. This indicates that living near a flying-fox camp does not pose a significant risk for infection with these viruses.

Direct handling of flying-fox droppings should be avoided. The health risks associated with flying-fox droppings relate mainly to the small potential risk to humans of gastrointestinal or lung diseases. Flying-foxes may carry a range of bacteria in their guts and, similar to domestic pets and birds, their droppings may contaminate the environment and potentially cause illness in humans if swallowed.

Droppings from many animals including flying-foxes may end up on roofs. These contaminants can then be washed into rainwater tanks when it rains. NSW Health recommends against drinking water from rainwater tanks where there is public drinking water available.

Advice on safely managing rainwater for drinking purposes where there is no alternative supply is available on the NSW Health website at Rainwater tank.

NSW Health has a Hendra virus Fact sheet and a Lyssavirus Fact sheet.

Scratched or bitten by a flying-fox?

If you are bitten or scratched by a flying-fox, the wound should immediately be washed gently but thoroughly with soap and water for at least 5 minutes, an antiseptic, such as povidone-iodine should be applied, and a doctor consulted as soon as possible.

Members of the community should not handle flying-foxes unless they have been trained, vaccinated against Australian Bat Lyssavirus and use the proper protective equipment.

What should you do if you find an injured, sick or orphaned flying-fox?

NSW Health advises that the public should avoid direct contact with flying-foxes. There is always the possibility of being scratched or bitten and it leading to infection.

The NSW Wildlife Council website provides public information on who to contact for wildlife rescues or you can call your local wildlife rescue service such as WIRES on 1300 094737.

Information for wildlife carers and rehabilitation groups about OEH's policies on rehabilitating injured or orphaned flying-foxes can be found in:

To find a wildlife carer in your area, visit Licensed fauna rehabilitation groups.

Do not directly handle dead flying-foxes. Where there is no direct handling or contact with flying-foxes, the risk of disease transmission is negligible. If you find a dead flying-fox in a public area (e.g. on a road or in a park), call your local council to ask them to dispose of it.

If you must handle a dead flying-fox:

  • wear thick gloves (e.g. gardening gloves) and use a shovel where possible
  • wrap the carcass in at least two plastic bags before disposing of it
  • wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water afterwards

Dead grey-headed flying-foxIf carcasses are buried, they should be buried at a minimum depth of 15cm to avoid scavengers digging them up.

If you have concerns or questions about disposing of dead flying-foxes, contact your local council for advice on waste management in your area. In some situations, wildlife care groups might also be able to provide advice or assistance if they have resources available.

Any dead flying-foxes which are banded should be reported to the Australian Bird and Bat Banding Scheme. If you find a banded flying-fox, do not attempt to read or remove the band yourself. Instead, call your local Licensed fauna rehabilitation group.

Protection of native animals

All native birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals, but not including dingoes, are protected in NSW by the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016.