Wood ducks are known to lay their eggs in the nests of other birds — an act known as brood parasitism

By Kelli Bender
April 18, 2019 02:57 PM
owl raising duckling

Earlier this month, wildlife artist and photographer Laurie Wolf peeped some exciting activity in the bird box outside her Jupiter, Florida, home.

According to National Geographic, Wolf saw a little ball of fluff bobbing around the box, which she assumed was a little owlet since a eastern screech owl moved into the box over a month ago.

Shortly after spotting the hatchling, Wolf and her husband saw the resident adult female pop her head out of the box, and then a yellow-and-black duckling appeared beside the owl. The bird was a baby, but it certainly didn’t belong to the bird of prey.

Wolf figured the duckling belong to a wood duck that she saw three to four weeks earlier.

“We had seen a female Wood Duck – about 3 or 4 weeks ago, remove a duck egg from a box that had been raided by something, and fly off toward this box with it,” Wolf wrote on Facebook along with a photo of the owl and duckling odd couple. “We lost it in the trees and didn’t want to disturb it. But we believe she put it in this box and the owl hatched it.”

According Christian Artuso, the Manitoba director of Bird Studies Canada, Wolf’s guess likely isn’t far from the truth.

Artuso told National Geographic that wood ducks have been recorded practicing brood parasitism. For birds, this literally means putting your eggs in more than one baskets. Wood ducks are known to lay some of their eggs in nests other than their own, so other birds end up hatching the baby ducks.

owl raising duckling
Credit: Laurie Wolf

“If you spread your eggs out, then your chances of passing on your genes are increased slightly, especially if you lose your own eggs to a predator.” Artuso explained.

Wood ducks will even lay eggs in the nests of birds of prey, like the owl Wolf spotted, though the tend to pick surrogate bird parents from “closely related species.”

After Wolf spotted the owl and duckling together, she contacted a local wildlife sanctuary for advise. The sanctuary staff advised her to try to safely catch the duckling and bring it in, since the owl could attempt to attack the baby animal. But before Wolf had a chance to round up the baby bird, the duckling jumped from the bird box and “made a beeline for the back fence and our neighbor’s pond where the woodies have been hanging out,” Wolf wrote on Facebook.

She believes the duckling heard its mother’s call and went off to reunite with her. Artuso agrees that this is possible. Since baby wood ducks are known to be rather independent, Wolf’s duckling could’ve set off to find their mother, or another brood of wood ducks to join.