Nestling carcasses from colonially breeding wading birds: patterns of access and energetic relevance for a vertebrate scavenger community


Energy transfer is fundamental to ecosystem processes, affecting productivity and community structure. Large aggregations of colonially breeding birds are known as nutrient sources through deposition of feces, but also may deposit large quantities of energy in the form of dead nestlings. The magnitude and ecological relevance of this process to the scavenger community is poorly understood. We used trail cameras to monitor the fates of size-appropriate chicken carcasses in heron colonies in order to quantify the proportion of available fallen nestlings that were consumed by scavengers in the Everglades of Florida, USA. Overall, 85% of 160 carcasses were consumed, with Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura, 47%) and American Alligators (Alligator mississippiensis, 29%) being the primary consumers. Probability of consumption by alligators or vultures was related to distance from nest to water, local nesting density, and colony type. Consumption probabilities of both scavengers in relation to habitat covariates suggested clear resource partitioning promoting coexistence. We estimate fallen nestlings throughout this ecosystem could support 16% of the alligator population and 147 adult Turkey Vultures during a nesting season. This work indicates that fallen nestlings can serve as an important source of energy for scavengers at colonial breeding aggregations, particularly in oligotrophic systems.

Scientific Reports