Life and Death in the Rookery

In the rookery; note the crowded nesting situation

The St. Augustine Zoological Park, better known as the Alligator Farm, is neither a zoo nor a farm. It is also not one of those Florida tourist attractions that advertise “wrestling with alligators”, nor is it a typical zoo, although there are other animals such as parrots and tortoises on display there. For us, it is all about the shore bird rookery. On the back end of the property is a huge area with large stands of trees in and on which Great Egrets, Little Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, and Storks build nests, mate, and rear their young, and under which live hundreds of alligators. The alligators in the water and on the land under the trees, ironically, are appealing to the shore birds as their presence keeps away the typical predators of nesting birds such as raccoons and snakes, giving the shore birds some semblance of safety.

The rookery is completely and richly fascinating. The various shore birds, all of which are large birds, make their nests impossibly close together, literally on top of each other, while seeming to coexist with just the occasional squabble.

We refer to this as a “condo”, with the nests packed so tightly, albeit cleverly, into the palm tree trunk. Some of the nests seem so precariously perched!

The water under the trees has fish in it, for both the alligators and the fish-eating birds, and as well, there are machines along the observation decks with pellets labeled “alligator food” for purchase. Every now and again however, an egg or a chick will fall from a nest, giving a lucky alligator a special meal. It can seem horrifying but this occurrence in nature is an everyday reality in the wild.

There I was, observing the nests crowded in the trees, engrossed by all the various activity–mating, nest building, and the feeding of chicks–when I noticed a Great Egret nest in which two chicks were aggressively fighting to be fed by their parent, while a third chick in that nest was off to the side, seemingly being ignored by the parent. It was considerably smaller than the other two chicks and its head was wobbling about. There was no doubt that this small and weak chick was struggling.

You can see the struggling chick, off to the right of the nest.

After its parent was done feeding the two chicks, it flew off. Then this horror, which indeed is a reality of nature, unfolded: one of the robust chicks moved over to the weak one, to begin pecking at it. The weaker chick could not defend itself but it did try to move to the very edge of the nest, under a barrage of pecking, when…it fell off the nest. It wasn’t on the ground but for a nanosecond before one of the dozens of alligators under that particular tree snatched it right up.

This happened so quickly! I was stunned–even though I realize this is nature at work–but it was upsetting nonetheless. That lucky alligator climbed over all of the other alligators in that area to find safety in the water, with its meal.

Did the parent Great Egret notice the loss when they arrived back to the nest? Did the pecking chick feel remorse? I will always wonder …



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