Owl raises duckling after mistaking egg for its own
When wildlife photographer Laurie Wolf checked the nest box in her Jupiter, Florida backyard, she noticed something surprising: The eastern screech owl who settled down a month ago wasn't looking after one of her own hatchlings - she was looking after a yellow-and-black duckling.
"The two of them were just sitting side by side," Wolf told National Geographic. "It's not believable. It's not believable to me to this day.... I don't think I'll ever experience anything like that in my life again."
Concerned that the predatory owl might try to eat the chick, Wolf called a bird expert, who confirmed the animal was in danger. A local wildlife sanctuary offered to care for hatchling if she could catch it, but the attempt was not successful. On Facebook, Wolf recounted the story, stating that the critter escaped to a nearby pond, where it may have reunited with its mother.
"A bit later, the baby duck was in the hole by itself, calling for the parents," Wolf wrote, alongside a photo of the owl and the duckling. "We believe they heard each other because it suddenly left the box and made a beeline for the back fence and our neighbor's pond where the woodies have been hanging out"
"Also," she continued, "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. 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."
The chick was a wood duck, which is a brood parasite, meaning parents lay an egg or two in other nests to ensure the species carries on. "You could think of it as not keeping all your eggs in one basket,” said says Christian Artuso, the Manitoba director of Bird Studies Canada, while speaking with National Geogrpaphic. "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."
It's not common to find wood ducklings living with screen owls, but it has been documented in the past. You may wonder, does the female owl have any sense she is incubating a duck, considering the eggs are bigger? Artuso says it's impossible to know what owls are thinking, but the female may just be reacting from instinct. "The parents might be thinking, Oh my god! This egg is huge!," said Artuso. "We’re going to have the best baby in the world!”
Well, it's a good thing the duckling got away before the owl realized she was raising a delicious meal!