like a fox on a wire, like...(thanks Lenny)
Like a fox on a wire, like...(thanks Lenny)

I came across this Little Red Flying Fox Pteropus scapulatus at Warmun in the north of Western Australia late last year.

The poor thing had apparently flown into the barbed wire on the fence around the local sewer ponds (readers familiar with my habits will know that when I’m traveling around this great country I always drop into the local shit-pits) and then suffered the double ignominy of not only being dead but also being a meal for a passing carrion-eater.

Little Red Flying-foxes are found across northern and eastern Australia from about Shark Bay in WA down as far as the Victoria-New South Wales border area. They are highly adaptable to a variety of Australian habitats and roam more widely than the 5 other members of the Flying-foxes family (the Pteropodidae) found in Australia, most likely sharing the same need to chase sporadic blossoming food resources as many Australian birds.

Little Red Flying-fox thumb
a Little Red Flying-fox's thumb

Little Reds congregate in enormous camps that in the breeding season of November to January can exceed 1,000,000 individuals and can cause serious damage to their chosen roost trees by their sheer weight and numbers.

And Little Reds – and as far as I’m aware, most Flying-foxes – are quite tasty and are a favoured food in many parts of the Top End of the country. I’ve eaten them and in the right season, particularly when the Melaleuca’s (paperbarks) are in flower, they are delcious – like chicken soaked in a sweet and spicy honey marinade – the taste and smell of the blossoms seems to permeate the meat..

And, unsurprisingly, Flying-foxes figure significantly in Aboriginal cultural practices and beliefs right across their range. The following image is of a painting by the famous Aboriginal painter George Milpurrurru from Ramingining in central Arnhem Land. You can see more of George’s paintings at the Aboriginal Fine Arts Gallery website (where this image came from) and also make enquiries through the locally-owned Bula-bula Arts centre at Ramingining.

George Milpurrurru
George Milpurrurru, Flying Fox dreaming

The Aboriginal Fine Arts Gallery website has the following story that accompanies this painting:

Ngulmarmar, an Ancestral Being, went walking with his dog Gurlgaragoar. When they came to the Glyde River near Ramingining, they found a rocky plateau. The dog sniffed around and became very excited, realising that there was something in the cave below. He thrust his hard penis through the rock and urinated, forming a pool in the ground of the cave.

The man and his dog went down a steep track into the cave, and when he saw the pool, Ngulmarmar declared it to be sacred, so that only old initiated men could drink from it. The artist said that he knew of one young man who drank from the pool, and subsequently died. Flying foxes (warrnyu) were flying around the cave and hanging upside down from the ceiling. Droppings from the flying foxes littered the floor and ledges of the cave, and Ngulmarmar declared both the flying foxes and their droppings were to be sacred totems of the Gurrumba Gurrumba Clan.

The dog ran around the cave barking to chase the flying foxes away, then he and Ngulmarmar went outside. Enticed by the smell of cooking, they set off towards the source. They came to a camp, where Ngulmarmar sat down to eat with his friend. The dog Gurlgaragoar met a female dog and the pair travelled towards the Arafura Sea, where they went into the water. They still live there today and Aborigines crossing from the island of Milingimbi to Ramingining say that they are sometimes chased by the dog sea monsters.

The flying foxes flew away and circled over the Arafura Swamp, finally settling hanging upside down from trees growing along the banks. They were the first creatures to cut the penises of their young males and the circumcision ceremonies performed on young boys today is accompanied by a repetition of the songs sung by the flying foxes as they initiated the original ceremony. (Story courtesy of Dorothy Bennett)

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