|The Question: Twice I have seen vultures taunt an alligator. My neighbor said she witnessed the same thing at Alligator Alley. Why do vultures taunt alligators?
Submitted by: Hank, Florida, USA
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The Short Answer: Hank, I searched the scientific literature and could find no reference to vultures taunting alligators (Alligator mississippiensis). I also spoke with Neil Buckley, a biologist at SUNY Plattsburgh in New York. Dr. Buckley has studied both black vultures (Coragyps atratus) and turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), the two vultures present in Florida, and he said he had never seen vultures interacting with alligators.
But I was able to find several interesting and relevant videos on youtube:
1) This first video shows an alligator with a wading bird it has killed. The alligator first tries to swallow the dead bird whole, while a turkey vulture watches. The alligator, maybe after remembering a case of heartburn from the last time it swallowed a snowy egret whole, spits the bird back out and proceeds to shake it apart. The real action starts at about 3:30. You’ll see the alligator break the bird into smaller pieces, most of which it swallows. A few pieces go flying, however, and vultures eventually sneak in to steal them.
2) The second video shows an alligator with a carcass of some kind, and a flock of black vultures waiting to see what’s left over. As the alligator moves around, trying to find the best place to polish off his meal, you can see the vultures swarm to the spot he just vacated, to clean up any scraps.
3) Finally, this third video is in some ways the most relevant, because when I asked Hank if the alligator he saw being taunted had food, he said no. And sure enough, if you watch this video, it shows an alligator sunning itself on a road, with a bunch of black vultures, which seem to be surrounding it and taunting it. At one point, the alligator tries to chase the birds away, but they just come back.
My suspicion is that the vultures are checking to see if there are any scraps of food left from an alligator meal. Scavengers like vultures often surround predators because that’s where the action is. The challenge is to steal something from the predator and get away with it. In places like Africa where there are many scavengers, a large predator kill is often surrounded by dozens of scavengers, which may include several species of vultures and other birds, as well as hyena and jackals. Everyone is trying to steal something before the bounty is all gone.
Alligators tend to swallow prey whole, which doesn’t leave much for vultures. But as the first two videos show, if the prey is large enough or the alligator small enough, it will be forced to rip the carcass apart, which inevitably leaves bits of good stuff for the vultures. Even if there weren’t any obvious prey present when you saw the vultures interacting with alligators, vultures have probably evolved or learned the behavior of checking whenever they see an alligator. They may even be deliberately trying to get the alligator to move, so they can check around where the alligator was parked. As long as they don’t get too close, it’s a low risk operation that might have tasty rewards.