Flying (foxes) into our hearts

Sustainable City People of Adelaide


Posted on 09 Sep 2019

Either hanging out in the trees above WOMAD or making a pit-stop in The Garden of Unearthly Delights before a night of foraging, the miraculous Grey-headed Flying-fox (Pteropus poliocephalus) has become an emblem of Adelaide’s festival season. But life isn’t always easy for them and sometimes they need help, especially when it gets hot. But who looks after them, and what does it take?

In this article we meet Sue Westover: a local hero who, during summer, makes looking after these flying-foxes her full-time occupation.

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“The Grey-headed Flying-foxes are fascinating! They are extremely intelligent, charismatic and their social structure is different to any other animal,” says Sue - when asked about what she enjoys most about being an animal carer.

You could say Sue found herself as a volunteer animal carer by accident. When visiting her sister, she would often be asked to pick up injured animals on the way, so that her sister could care for them. Eventually the question from her sister became: “Why aren’t you a volunteer carer already?” So, she became one.

Sue has now been caring for a variety of sick, injured and young native animals for over 29 years. She originally thought she just wanted to look after kangaroos and possums, but when she came across her first microbat she knew she had “fallen in love”. Adelaide has at least seven native species, most fit in the palm of your hand!

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photo-icon Patrick Kavanagh
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Chocolate Wattled Bat (Chalinolobus morio). One of up to 7 native microbat species found in the Adelaide area. Unlike the Grey-headed Flying-fox, these tiny bats use echolocation to navigate and hunt insects.

By the time the Grey-headed Flying-foxes arrived in Adelaide from the eastern states in 2010, Sue was the best person to coordinate the care of injured individuals. But even she admits, “I didn’t know anything about them when they arrived, so we needed to learn quickly.” The flying-foxes have been fleeing habitat destruction, drought and the effects of climate change in their natural range along the coasts of the eastern states.

Summer is the most difficult time for these flying-foxes as they suffer in extreme heat events and are frequently found on or near the ground, particularly near water bodies like the River Torrens / Karrawirra Pari. After Adelaide’s hottest day on record, when the temperatures reached 46.6 deg C (Jan 24, 2019), Fauna Rescue SA was caring for 137 flying-foxes. Sue herself was caring for over 70 - no simple or cheap exercise.

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“At that time we were feeding them over 130kg of fruit every week for three months,” says Sue. That’s the equivalent of around 13 watermelons, or 1300 apples! When this happens, food and financial donations from the public become essential for volunteer carers like Sue to continue their selfless work.

It can also be a huge time commitment: “The summer season is completely full-on. The young ones need to be hand-reared, requiring five milk feeds a day until they reach ten to 12 weeks of age. They are then placed in a creche with 20 to 50 other flying-foxes to learn how to be a bat! Afterwards we take them to Victoria to be soft-released into an aviary below an established colony, where the adult males teach them how to feed in the wild.” 

Sue and other volunteers used to have to drive them to NSW before Victoria agreed to accept them, as Adelaide does not have an aviary in Botanic Park, which is where our local colony has made camp.

“People can be terrified of flying foxes, but they don’t need to be scared, they just shouldn’t touch them. I love to re-educate people when they ask me about them; they usually walk away with a new curiosity and appreciation.”
Sue Westover, Volunteer, Fauna Rescue SA

She’s clear on her reasons why, too: “They disperse native seeds and pollinate trees over hundreds of kilometres, they are extremely intelligent, and people don’t realise that they only visit backyard trees when they are flowering, returning to their colony before day breaks every morning”.

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The efforts of volunteers like Sue who care for our native wildlife are admirable and deserve the backing of the public. So then, how can we support Fauna Rescue’s efforts?

“Anyone can help, from making small food and monetary donations, becoming a member, or even joining in on our monthly training sessions as an animal carer”, says Sue.

If you would like to know more you can contact Sue directly via Fauna Rescue SA’s flying-fox helpline on 0475 132 093 or visit their website: faunarescue.org.au/

Safety message

Bats are wild animals and could be carrying disease. It’s important that you NEVER touch them. If you see one on the ground, please contact Fauna Rescue’s Flying-fox helpline on 0475 132 093, or the City of Adelaide Park Lands Ranger on 0407 394 662.

For more information on flying-foxes and how you can get involved with them this summer, visit: cityofadelaide.com.au/GHFlyingFox

Article by

Tristan O'Brien

Tristan O'Brien

Much of Tristan’s energy is spent attempting to balance his time staring at things in nature with staring at screens of various shapes and sizes. After the customary stint living elsewhere in the world (namely, Victoria), his return to Adelaide also brought with it a renewed appreciation and love for this special city.


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