Caring for flying foxes

This information should be used as a guide only. You will need specific information to properly care for injured wildlife. 

Read more about rescuing and releasing animals in the Northern Territory (NT).

You need a permit to care for injured or rescued wildlife.

Background

The NT is home to several species of flying fox or fruit bat. 

The two most common species are the black flying fox (Pteropus alecto) and the little red flying fox (Pteropus scapulatus).

Flying foxes often need care after getting entangled in barbed wire or fruit nets, shocks from power lines, being hit by cars or attacked by domestic animals.

Black flying fox

The black flying fox is the larger of the two species. Adults weigh 600g to 900g and have a wing length of 153mm to 191mm. 

It has black fur often with a reddish-brown mantle or tuft of hair on the back of the neck. The lower legs and ankles are unfurred. Some black flying foxes have lighter fur around their eyes. 

Their preferred diet includes eucalypt and paperbark blossoms and fruit. They’ll also chew the leaves of some plant species, especially Albizia lebbeck. 

Black flying foxes group in camps or colonies during the day and can travel up to 50km at night while foraging. 

Mating season is in March and April, with the females giving birth to a single pup from late October.

Little red flying fox

The little red flying fox is smaller than the black flying fox. Adults weigh 300g to 600g and have a wing length of 125mm to 155mm. 

The red flying fox has a rich reddish-brown to light brown fur, often with a grey patch on the head. The wings are red-brown and are translucent in flight. 

Little red flying-foxes are nomadic and their movements depend on food resources. They mainly feed on blossoms or nectar of native plants. 

They will also chew the leaves of some plant species, especially Albizia lebbeck. 

They commonly roost with black flying foxes. They hang in tight groups and the combined weight often damages the trees they roost in. 

Mating season is from November to January and their young are born April to May.

Northern blossom bat

A less commonly encountered species is the northern blossom bat. This species weighs only 10g to 17g as an adult and feeds primarily on nectar and pollen. 

This species needs specialist care and should only be taken in by an experienced carer.

Capture and handling

Flying foxes may carry Australian bat lyssavirus, which can be transmitted to people and is fatal if contracted.

Only experienced handlers with appropriate vaccinations should handle flying foxes. 

If you’re not vaccinated, you must not touch these animals. Contact Parks and Wildlife or a local wildlife rescue service.

If you're scratched or bitten, flush the wound with disinfectant and seek medical attention right away.

Once captured, hold flying foxes behind the head, restraining the body with the palm of your hand. Use your other hand to support the feet, or wrap it in a towel or blanket. 

Take care at all times. Flying foxes have delicate wing bones and membranes which are easily damaged or torn.

Rescue

The most common reason flying foxes need to be rescued is barbed wire entanglement.

Rescuing flying foxes from barbed wire or entanglement

Only experienced handlers with appropriate vaccinations should rescue flying foxes. 

There are two ways flying foxes become entangled in barbed wire.

The first is when they feed in trees next to barbed wire fences and they climb onto the fence. When
they spread their wings to take off, they get caught on the wire.

The second is when they don’t see the fence while flying. The momentum can spin them around the wire a number of times. 

Animals caught in this manner often show huge tears in the wing membrane and can have snapped finger bones. They will often bite the barbs of the wire in an effort to free themselves.

These injuries can be difficult to see on first inspection and will need antibiotics. Do not be tempted to rescue the flying fox and let it go.

Damaged wing membranes can die off for up to a week after injury, making the flying fox unable to fly.

Flying foxes with wing membrane damage should always be taken to an experienced carer or vet for assessment. 

Barbed wire can be made more visible to animals by adding markers to the fence, such as tape, plastic flags, metal tags, and empty aluminium cans.

How to remove a flying fox from barbed wire

Follow these steps to remove a flying fox from barbed wire or entanglement:

Step 1. Cover the animal with a towel, placing another towel between the barbs and its body to stop further entanglement.
Step 2. Offer something for the flying fox to drink, preferably electrolytes or water from a syringe.
Step 3. Spray water on the wing membrane to soften it.
Step 4. Unwind the barbs using two sets of pliers.
Step 5. Carefully untangle the flying fox.
Step 6. If it is female and in birthing season - October to February for black flying foxes and April to June for little reds - check the nipples. There may be a pup nearby.

Only cut the wing membranes as a last resort. Damage to the wing membrane from cutting will decrease the chance of successful rehabilitation.

Rescuing flying foxes in trees or on the ground

The most common reasons for a flying fox to be hanging alone in a tree or on the ground are:

  • exhaustion
  • fractures
  • electric shock
  • injury due to storms
  • heat stress
  • a major trauma such as being hit by a car, animal attack, infection or gunshot wound
  • poisoning or disease, such as cancer
  • old age
  • rat lungworm
  • Australian bat lyssavirus.

If the animal is in a tree, try to avoid driving it up further. Poles and nets will help in these rescues.

For a flying fox on the ground, use gloves and a towel to cover the animal. Rehydrate the animal by offering it a drink, preferably electrolytes or water from a syringe.

Rescuing orphaned young flying foxes

Young flying foxes usually come into care after being dropped, abandoned or left behind by mothers trapped on barbed wire fences or netting, or from mothers electrocuted on overhead power lines.

Most orphaned flying foxes are found hanging in shrubs or trees and can be picked up easily with a towel. 

If the baby is hanging on a dead mother, never pull the baby from the nipple. You might break its jaw.

Squeeze both sides of the jaw and have a dummy ready. Wrap the pup securely and offer it a drink, preferably electrolytes or water from a syringe.

Housing

Flying foxes should be kept in a quiet, secure spot away from family pets and excessive noise. This includes general household noise, traffic, domestic animals and construction.

Housing for flying foxes varies according to the stage of rehabilitation. For example, head injury or electric shock patients need intensive care and should not be allowed to hang. 

Wing membrane injuries need enough room to stretch but not fly. 

Rehabilitating animals need the space and facilities to fly, forage and socialise.

Orphaned young

As flying foxes are highly social, orphans should be kept with others at the same stage of development. Pre-weaned young may be kept in baskets with warming pads. 

Dependent young can’t regulate their own body temperature so must be kept around 28 degrees Celsius to 30 degrees Celsius. Make sure humidity is high to avoid dehydration. 

As flying foxes grow, they will need more room. They should be kept on clothes horses that let them climb out of their basket and hang independently.

Once they start to fly, they should be kept with others at the same stage of development in an enclosure where they can practice flying.

Enclosure materials

The enclosure material is important when caring for flying foxes because of the risk posed by getting tangled in mesh. The animal should not be able to fit a wing or foot through meshing. 

Pliable material, such as prawn netting, should line the enclosure. This way the flying foxes will not hang directly from wire mesh, which can damage their toes. The external mesh needs to be predator proof.

Unless the animal is in intensive care and you need easy access, the enclosure should be high enough to provide security and allow for a drop when the animal lets go to fly.

Thick rope and tree branches in the enclosure will give a place to hang and play on. 

Never house a flying fox in a cage with ceilings so low their heads are on or near the floor when roosting.

Outdoor enclosures are best placed among trees but not fully screened. Flying foxes need sunlight for normal D3 synthesis, which helps in calcium absorption. 

Vegetation inside the enclosure gives the animals something to climb on, but make sure large, open spaces are available for flight. 

Large living trees will become defoliated quickly and new food will be needed regularly. 

Landing pads, like sheets or large towels, should be hung at each end to encourage animals to fly and land on something soft.

They will also play with this. It should be changed when it gets dirty. A drop or two of an essential oil can be added to give them a different scent experience.

Sprinklers in the enclosure will allow flying foxes to cool themselves and bathe but should be placed so the spray can be avoided. 

Enclosures must be cleaned daily.

F10SC veterinary disinfectant can be used regularly and has no adverse effect on people, animals or equipment.

The cage must allow for and contain other flying foxes for company. A lone flying fox will become depressed and ill. The exception is for trauma nursing where the animal needs to be housed alone.

Food and water

In the wild, weaned flying foxes feed on pollen, nectar, flowers, leaves and bark, as well as fruits including figs.

Little red flying foxes mostly feed on pollen and nectar and are often called blossom nomads because they follow the flowering of native vegetation.

Orphaned young

You can use Wombaroo Flying Fox Milk Replacer for hand-raising orphaned flying foxes. Buy it from pet shops and vet clinics.

Orphaned flying foxes can also be fed full-fat cow's or goat's milk with added calcium, and glucose in the form of Glucodin. 

Growing young need sunlight for 10 to 20 minutes every day. They need vitamin D3 to help with calcium absorption. 

How to feed flying foxes

Flying foxes and fruit bats can be fed chopped fruit. Flying foxes can eat 2cm cubes. Fruit bats can eat 1cm cubes.

They will eat any of the following, supplemented with Wombaroo High Protein Supplement (HPS):

  • grapes
  • apple 
  • pear 
  • melon
  • plum 
  • fig 
  • mango. 

You can feed two thirds of a meal as apple, and one third made up of two other fruits in the list above.

Don't feed bananas and pawpaw to babies as they can cause digestive issues. These fruits can be fed to adults occasionally.

Put the fruit in containers attached to the cage at shoulder height to keep it from being spoiled by droppings.

You can offer larger sliced fruit in 2.5cm cubes, sprinkled with HPS, on skewers and hung from the roof of the cage. This may encourage animals that are not adapting easily to feed.

You should feed adults 300g fruit and 5g HPS nightly, depending on the activity level, health, lactation or pregnancy.

This diet can also be supplemented with leafy green and other vegetables such as bok choy, celery, corn on the cob, lightly steamed sweet potato and carrot. 

Fresh flowers of eucalypts, melaleucas, banksias and other blossoms should be given regularly.

Water

Flying foxes need both fresh and salted water at all times. To make salted water, mix one teaspoon of iodised table salt with one litre of water.

Water can be offered in a rodent drinker or bowl clipped to the side of the enclosure. There should be more than one water station to reduce competition between flying foxes. If using bowls, place them so that they cannot get soiled.

Transport

Flying foxes can be transported in a well-ventilated cage or box for short distances. A mesh top or sticks across the top of a box will let the flying fox hang. 

Flying foxes must be able to hang upside down during transport or be supported on a downward angle if injuries stop the animal from hanging. 

Cover the box to minimise stress.

Always wear gloves so you’re not scratched through the cage or box, or use a box that can’t be penetrated by claws but still lets air in.

Small flying foxes can be moved in calico bags turned inside out so they can’t get tangled in the threads. Be careful you’re not scratched through the calico. 

Be very careful if transporting the animal in a bag as flying foxes can quickly overheat and die.

Enrichment

Enrichment is the set of things you can do to help animals regain natural behaviours to survive in the wild.

Flying foxes in the pre-release stage need an environment to encourage instinctive behaviour.

You should do all of the following to promote natural behaviours, increase exercise and reduce stress in flying foxes:

  • provide tree trunks and branches
  • provide rope, strung in lengths and hanging
  • hang sheets at the long ends of the enclosure for soft landing pads - add a drop or two of essential oil
  • house flying foxes together - they should never be alone, unless sick or in treatment
  • give options for hanging
  • allow a large area for flight - at least a dozen wing beats of uninterrupted flying
  • present fruit on skewers to encourage foraging and lessen competition
  • allow sun to get in.

How to tell a flying fox is ready for release

A flying fox or fruit bat is ready to release when it is showing the following behaviours:

  • actively foraging for food
  • active at night
  • showing less abnormal behaviour, such as pacing, and more natural behaviours
  • coping with change
  • interacting with other bats or flying foxes
  • showing improved physical fitness
  • flying well and navigating enclosure structures
  • showing proper bone development without curvature.

Contact

For more information contact Wildlife Operations in your region.

Last updated: 28 November 2017