The photo above is real, and in the last several days it has drawn lots of attention. As you can see, an Eastern Screech-Owl sits next to a young Wood Duck in the entrance to a nest box. Laurie Wolf, an artist and photographer, noticed the scene last Tuesday in her backyard in Jupiter Farms, Florida, in the southeastern part of the state.
On either February 28 or March 1, Wolf says she “saw a female Wood Duck remove and fly away with one duck egg from a nesting box on the east side of our property. The area under this particular tree had some fresh egg shells, where something had raided the box. She flew west with it toward another of our nesting boxes, but we lost sight of her, as we went from the upstairs window where we can see the one box, to the downstairs window where we could see the box she went toward. On March 1, the screech-owl appeared in the evening, sitting in the doorway of that box. The boxes are in our backyard, 20 feet off the ground, fastened to pine trees.”
About a month later, in early April, Wolf saw a pair of adult Wood Ducks in an oak tree near the nest box. “They’d be sitting there in the mornings and sometimes in the afternoons,” she says.
“On April 9 around 4 pm, I looked out at the owl box to see something fuzzy disappearing from the hole, back down into the box, so I thought we had an owl baby. I kept watch on the box for a couple of hours and suddenly near dusk, the Wood Duckling was in the box opening, WITH the screech-owl! The duckling went up and down in the box several times, peeping when it would come up.”
Wolf consulted a raptor expert, who suggested that she remove the duckling from the box before nightfall because the owl could kill it.
“We were getting ready to do so, when the duckling jumped from the box and made a beeline for our back fence and the neighbor’s pond behind us. We have to assume that the parents and duckling heard each other.”
Thanks to Wolf’s photos, the amazing story has gone viral on social media and was featured on local NBC station WPTV on Friday. This is not, however, the first time people have observed a screech-owl raising young Wood Ducks.
In 2005, ornithologist Christian Artuso (now the Manitoba Program Director for Bird Studies Canada), placed a small video camera in an Eastern Screech-Owl nest box in suburban Winnipeg. An owl laid five eggs in the box, but a few weeks later, the eggs started to disappear and new, larger eggs appeared in the box. Artuso wrote in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology that a female Wood Duck removed the owl’s eggs and laid three of her own.
The screech-owl drove the hen duck away but then incubated the new eggs for about a month, until they hatched. The owl preened the ducklings, brooded them, and attempted to feed them. In less than 36 hours, the three ducklings left the box, but Artuso didn’t know if they survived. The author also noted a few other known instances of raptorial birds incubating waterfowl eggs, especially in nest boxes.
As for the owl in Wolf’s yard, she says it’s still in the box.
“We see her daily and her behavior mirrors that of last year, when she hatched one baby owl and raised it successfully,” she says. “So we’re hoping there will be at least one baby owlet soon.”