A Florida screech owl was in for a surprise when one of her hatchlings looked nothing like her, but she didn’t hold it against him. Unlike the Ugly Duckling fairy tale, the mother owl appeared to care for the baby duck as her own.
The had been incubating her eggs in a nest box in the backyard of a nature photographer for about a month. One morning, photographer Laurie Wolf noticed the figure of a little bird sitting next to the owl and ran outside excitedly to photograph it.
But when she got a closer look she realized it was a duck!
“The two of them were just sitting there side by side,” Wolf told National Geographic. “It’s not believable. It’s not believable to me to this day.”
Afraid the owl, a bird of prey, would eat the little wood duck, Wolf and her husband attempted to capture him to take him to a wildlife sanctuary. But the duckling jumped from the nest box and “made a beeline for the pond” and they never saw him again. Director of Bird Studies Canada Christian Artuso told National Geographic that what Wolf thought she saw happening was likely true.
It wasn’t the first time wood ducks have been scientifically recorded living with screech owls. Artuso witnessed a similar relationship in 2005 while he was studying eastern screech owls for his Ph.D. Only in that case, the owl incubated and hatched three wood duck chicks, says Artuso, who published his findings in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology.
“We know this occurs, but we really don’t know the frequency,” he says.
The reason, he explains, is that wood ducks practice something called brood parasitism, which means laying an egg or two in another bird’s nest to increase the chances that at least one of their offspring will survive.
“You could think of it as not keeping all your eggs in one basket,” said Artuso. “If you spread your eggs out, then your chances of passing on your genes are increased, especially if you lose your own eggs to a predator.”
Even though duck eggs are about twice the size of owls’ eggs, the owls don’t seem to suspect any foul play.
“The parents might be thinking, Oh my god! This egg is huge! We’re going to have the best baby in the world!” Artuso said.