Published on Aug 23, 2020

Cute Bird Background Images

License Info: Creative Commons 4.0 BY-NC

Everybody loves a cute picture of a baby bird, which is why the Internet is packed with shots of these tiny balls of fluff, watched over by their adoring parents. Nature’s reality, however, is a lot less adorable. Many wading birds—including egrets, herons, and storks—actually feed their babies to local alligators in exchange for protection from other predators.

A new study published in PLoS One explores the complicated relationship between colonies of wading birds and alligators in the Florida Everglades. Environmental scientists have known for a long time that birds and alligators thrive in part thanks to a mutually beneficial arrangement that’s called “facilitation.” The birds choose to nest in trees right at the center of dangerous alligator territories–and it’s out of a sense of self-preservation. Their nests are out of chomping range, which means the local alligators focus on killing the raccoons and possums that would normally eat birds’ eggs. Alligators keep the birds’ nests safe from predators.

Rarely did anyone wonder what alligators got out of this deal. They can get raccoons anywhere, so why stick around bird colonies? Answering that question is the focus of this new study.

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It turns out that there are two immediate benefits for alligators. One is an indirect benefit, because bird guano is full of nutrients which can make the region more attractive for marine life generally—and that can mean more tasty treats for the gators. The other is a direct benefit. Most wading birds tend to spawn far more chicks than they can fit in one nest. So adult birds toss extra chicks out into the swampy waters below for the alligators to enjoy. When you’ve got an entire egret colony, that’s a lot of chicks.

By placing cameras near birds’ nests in swamps (see below), the researchers found that alligators frequently hang out directly under the nests within chick-catching range, clearly hoping for the adults to toss them a snack.

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