Flying Foxes


EVERY one interested in bats should make a point of taking a morning ride along the Westcott Road, Madras, in order to see the flying foxes going to bed. In a compound within a stone's-throw of the Club are some tall casuarina-trees which form the dormitory of the frugivorous Cheiroptera of Royapettah. Since a bat has no clothes to take off when it goes to bed, having merely to fly up to a branch, catch hold of it with the hooks at the posterior end of the wings, and then let itself hang, the process of retiring for the night, or, rather, the day, should not be a long one. Nor would it be if these winged mammals were amiable creatures. But, alas! more cross-grained, surly brutes do not exist! It is one of the strangest freaks of Dame Nature that she should have granted wings -: the emblems of purity -: to one mammal only, and that the most unclean, loathsome, and ill-tempered of them all.

Some time after the sun has shown himself above the trees, and long after the fowls of the air are up and doing, the flying foxes begin to think of going to bed. These great creatures, the expanse of whose wings is over a yard, come sailing up from all directions, and, for a time, wheel round the roosting trees. After a little, one of the bats approaches a branch, catches the hook┬Člike claws of his hind limbs over it, and allows himself to hang. When once a bat has thus taken up a position on a bough, he looks upon that particular bough as his own especial property, just as a human being appropriates a compartment of a railway carriage; but whereas Homo sapiens only stares angrily at another of his species who dares to intrude, Pteropus edwardsi not only glares at any other bat that makes so bold as to venture on to the branch appropriated by him (for bats are not blind), but attacks it with teeth and claws, and at the same time shrieks, "Why the deuce can't you keep out of this ? " or words to that effect. The intruder then remarks, in a screech, that had he known the class of bat that was accustomed to hang out on that branch he would not have defiled himself by hooking on to it!

Having thus relieved his ruffled feelings he betakes himself to another part of the tree. Eventually, all the desirable boughs are occupied by flying foxes; but still many of the animals are without accommodation, and fresh ones continue to arrive. Then the real fun begins. Little tiffs, such as that described above, pale into insignificance before the squabbles which now take place. Each of those thousand odd bats has made up its mind to roost in one of those four trees, and each of those already hanging on is equally determined to have a branch all to itself. Hence the place becomes a veritable pandemonium, and the noise of the fighting and squabbling can be heard everywhere within a quarter-mile radius.

The best way to see the fun is to follow the fortunes of one particular bat. The other day I fixed my attention on one stout fellow who had taken up a position at the lower end of a bare branch at the top of a tree. The bough was at least a couple of yards in length and hence was obviously intended " to seat five." A few seconds after this bat had comfortably settled himself for the day, another came up and quietly hooked on to the upper end of the branch. The first comer immediately proceeded to abuse him roundly, and sidled up to him with great speed, in precisely the same way as a man, hanging by his arms from a horizontal bar, moves himself along by sliding first one hand and then the other along the bar. The intruder waited for him to come quite close up and then flew off swearing, leaving the prior occupant in sole possession. This individual then edged back to the lower part of the branch. He had scarcely arrived there before another bat hooked itself on to the upper end of the bough. Exactly the same comedy was acted, the original possessor again asserting his prior claim. But he had constantly to fight for it. Within three minutes I saw him drive off five intruders.

This is but a specimen of the kind of thing that takes place simultaneously all over the tree. Since bats appear to dislike each other's company so intensely it is strange that they always roost in large colonies, and invariably in the same tree. Possibly they do so for the sake of safety. A sleeping flying fox is a conspicuous object; and were he alone the eagles, kites, and crows might give him a bad time.

After about two hours' constant vituperation and fighting, things begin to quiet down a little. By this time it is probably long past nine o'clock. The quiet is, however, only relative; throughout the day the squabbling seems never to entirely cease; the whole colony appears to be in a state of stifled wrath, ready to bubble forth at any moment. Some of the bats seem to suffer from sleeplessness, and such individuals take good care that their immediate neighbours shall keep them company. A bat will suddenly, and without any apparent provocation, attack its sleeping friend. A fight of course ensues which, as likely as not, will spread ; for a flying fox, like an Irishman, seems always ready for a row. Such fights invariably end in two or three individuals being jockeyed out of their places. The bats thus evicted seek new roosting-stations, and these become the centres of fresh squabbles.

Perhaps about 4 p.m. is the quietest part of the day; for by this time the bats begin to realize that the hour is at hand when they must be up and doing, so that it is a case of " now or never " if they want any sleep that day. The bat colony then looks like a number of dried cocoanuts hanging from trees -: cocoa-nuts round the upper part of which a black membrane has been wrapped. This appearance is due to the fact that the wings and fur of a flying fox are not the same colour. The former are almost black, while the fur is of a reddish-brown hue. If the day be very hot, the bats hang by one wing and fan themselves with the other.

While yet the sun is above the horizon the early-rising members of the community awake from their disturbed slumbers, and make preparation for the work of the night. They take to their wings and fly about over the roosting-trees. Gradually they are joined by their companions who, one by one, spread out their leathery pinions; and soon the whole colony is in motion. The mere fact of flying through the air seems to put the creatures in a better frame of mind, for the discordant clamour above described is no longer heard. It is replaced by another cry, which, if not pleasing to the ear, does not set one's teeth on edge. The flying fox, as it sails through the air with easy motion, gives vent to a sound intermediate between the " quack " of a duck and the " caw " of a crow.

As the veil of darkness begins to fall over the face of the earth, the members of the bat colony cease from circling round the roosting-trees and fly off in various directions in long columns, each bound for some orchard or fruit-tree.

Flying foxes live almost exclusively on fruit; and greedy brutes they are. Each one probably devours more than its own weight of fruit during the night, and doubtless destroys as much as it consumes. Seeing that the population of fruit-eating bats within municipal limits must number several thousands, it is not surprising that one's butler is continually assuring one that fruit is difficult to procure in Madras. The amount of damage done to orchards by these flying foxes must be enormous. Indeed, letters of complaint have appeared in the " Madras Mail" from those who have suffered at the hands of the frugivorous Cheiroptera.

Jerdon is my authority for saying of flying foxes: " The flesh is esteemed good eating by some. Colonel Sykes calls it delicate, and with no bad flavour, and states that it is eaten by the native Portuguese. Many classes in the Madras Presidency also eat it." Arise, then, ye epicures who love to tickle your palates with the savoury flesh of these winged mammals, arise and make hay while the sun shines, for in Madras, near the Club, lives a whole farmyard of fine, well-fed flying foxes, only waiting to be eaten

Bombay Ducks; An Account Of Some Of The Every-day Birds And Beasts Found In A Naturalist's Eldorado
Dewar, Douglas. Bombay ducks: an account of some of the every-day birds and beasts found in a naturalist's Eldorado, 1906.
Title in Book: 
Flying Foxes
Book Author: 
Douglas Dewar
Page No: 
Common name: 
Flying Foxes

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