As darkness descends over Australia’s east coast, thousands of grey-headed flying foxes take to the skies. Armed with a keen sense of smell and keen night vision, they wander to find food after resting all day. Some may travel up to 30 miles in one night in search of fruit such as figs and pollinating trees.
Grey-headed flying foxes are actually Australia’s largest native bat species, with wingspans of up to three feet. They are not found anywhere else in the world. But as urbanization destroys their forest habitats and droughts make food scarce, their populations have plummeted. Although bats numbered in the millions in the early 1900s, fewer than 400,000 may exist today. The species is listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
As less of their natural habitat remains, bats are forced to forage closer to humans, exposing them to new threats. Mesh netting on urban fruit trees can wrap around them when they try to eat, and barbed wire, a fixture on many Australian farms, can catch bats in flight. Some city dwellers are not happy about sharing their neighborhoods with congregations of flying foxes, which can be noisy at dusk and dawn and generate a lot of poop.
As a result, local authorities try to disperse the “encampments” – each of which can include thousands of bats – with smoke guns, loud noises or fireworks. This is not an effective strategy because bats tend to move between beds.
“They’re constantly replacing each other,” says Claire Winter, flying fox co-ordinator at Canberra-based rescue organization ACT Wildlife. “No bat returns to the same spot every night. So they won’t really learn not to come back.
Australia’s 2019 to 2020 bushfire season was devastating to the flying fox population, killing tens of thousands. But the fires also represent a turning point for bats’ reputation. Because they fly long distances on their nocturnal journeys, bats play a key role in re-pollinating areas of burned land. Pollen sticks to their fur and they also ingest fruit, making them excellent seed dispersers. A single flying fox can spread up to 60,000 seeds per night.
“Everybody realized, ‘Hey, we’re going to need as much help as we can get to regenerate all of this,'” says John Grant, a spokesman for Australian wildlife rescue organization WIRES (Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service). . . “And flying foxes are the best animals for that.” In 2020, the New South Wales government released a video praising bats for their super pollinating abilities.
So when around 85,000 flying foxes descended on the town of Tamworth last year, the news coverage wasn’t bad. In one account, a local resident called the bats “flying pests” and complained about their smell, but others focused on the fact that such huge bat colonies are a sight to behold. One resident compared the gathering to a local music festival and declared, “We have to live with them, they’re great for our ecology.” The fire “changed a lot of people’s attitudes,” Grant says. “Most of New South Wales was in flames. And I think people are starting to realize how precious our wildlife is.