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I witnessed a bizarre scene on the James River in Richmond, VA, USA (1000 yards west of Mayo Bridge if you want to examine Google Maps). It was on a large rock in the middle of the river, where nearly 2 dozen vultures had congregated. There were so many I couldn't tell if they were atop some carcas, but I couldn't see one from 75 yards away.

Now here's the weird part. There was a large bald eagle that seemed to be vying for the rock. Eagle would swoop in onto the rock, look around like "Oh, s*** this is more vultures than I thought!". The vultures (at least those closest to the Eagle) would beat their wings and eventually the eagle would change position or retreat to prepare for another dive bomb. Eventually, the eagle flew away.

Some important details:

  • There was a treeline about 300 yards from the rock, and there may have been a nest there. Not likely, but possible. Assuming this was a mother w/ chicks, maybe a chick tried flying and ended up dying on a nearby rock?
  • A lady walking passed said that vultures were "all over the place" this time of year on the river. Not sure how credible of a claim this was.
  • No recent flooding, and the shad (fish) are still running in this area.
  • The vultures didn't seem "busy"; they looked like they were just hanging out waiting for something to happen.

Any hypotheses on what was going on here? In my vast 26 years of life, I've never seen anything like this.

  • 1
    What exactly is weird about this? Clearly the eagle is after the same thing as the vultures - probably a carcass. – bon May 19 '16 at 14:23
  • Given you dont have any information, other than lots of vultures + 1 eagle, there is no real answer for this. – Erik vanDoren May 19 '16 at 14:40
  • Do eagles eat carrion, especially in late spring at the height of a shad running? Not likely, in my opinion. Then again I'm no expert. Maybe this is a better question for a local guru instead of the internet, as it may be too nuanced for a general forum. I was hoping we could at least rule some possibilities out (eg vultures don't gather in exposed areas if there's no carrion, or eagles often compete with vultures for carrion, or eagles are super protective of young and it's more likely it was for show, etc). – priorww1 May 19 '16 at 16:17
  • This does seem weird given that the vultures were just hanging out and not feeding. That suggests that either a) there was no carcass, so what's the common interest, or b) there's a carcass, and the vultures are standing around watching it instead of eating it. – Don Branson May 24 '18 at 14:57
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As bon says in the comments, the most likely explanation is that the vultures and eagle were fighting over a carcass. The answer to your question "do eagles eat carrion?" is an emphatic yes:

Unlike some other eagle species, bald eagles rarely take on evasive or dangerous prey on their own... They obtain much of their food as carrion or via a practice known as kleptoparasitism, by which they steal prey away from other predators... adults are generally more likely to hunt live prey than immature eagles, which often obtain their food from scavenging. They are not very selective about the condition or origin, whether provided by humans, other animals, auto accidents or natural causes, of a carcass's presence, but will avoid eating carrion where disturbances from humans are a regular occurrence. They will scavenge carcasses up to the size of whales, though carcasses of ungulates and large fish are seemingly preferred. Bald eagles also may sometimes feed on material scavenged or stolen from campsites and picnics, as well as garbage dumps (dump usage is habitual mainly in Alaska).

  • 1
    Wow! I had no idea. I guess I always assumed that, merely by virtue of being our national bird, eagles only ate delicacies such as fresh fish. Thanks! – priorww1 May 19 '16 at 19:50
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    I took out a quarter. "This is the bald eagle, the emblem of our land. It stands for freedom, strength and courage". I didn't tell him that the bald eagle feeds mainly on carrion and never fights anything over a third of its size. Robert Heinlein. – DJClayworth Feb 21 at 20:36
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    @DJClayworth Or as Franklin put it: “… I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly… too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish… the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him… Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District.” – Pont Feb 21 at 21:31
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The vultures had likely found something that the eagle also wanted in on. I come from a part of the world where Bald Eagles are everywhere, and yes, they are carrion birds that eat roadkill and found kill all the time. I actually have a picture I shot not long ago of a bald eagle picking meat off of a deer carcass. This was shot just after he chased away a bunch of ravens that had been feasting on it:

enter image description here

Vultures however are rather big, bigger than eagles are. One eagle would be rather intimidated by a large gathering of vultures, it was looking for a safe opening for it to swoop in and get a bite to eat.

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    "Vultures however are rather big, bigger than eagles are." -- In other areas perhaps. The "vultures" we get in the SE US are turkey vultures (what we call turkey buzzards). They definitely do not get bigger than bald eagles. Turkey vultures have a 63 - 72in wingspan. Bald eagles have up to a 90 inch wingspan. – Russell Steen May 21 '16 at 12:58
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    Everything I've read, including in several books specifically about eagles, vultures, and hawks, all say that both bald eagles and golden eagles are larger than vultures. – Beth barr Feb 21 at 15:57

protected by Reinstate Monica Feb 26 at 4:21

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