Readers’ wildlife photos: A wood duck fairy tale

Reader Bruce Lyon sent what he calls a “wood duck fairy tale.”  Well, like the old timey fairy tales, it’s not all beer and skittles, but does have a happy ending. And there’s some nice biology included. The story stars a beleaguered mother wood duck (Aix sponsa), some predatory California scrub jays (Aphelocoma californica), and a protective California quail (Callipepla californica).

Bruce’s notes are indented.

My colleague John Eadie and I observed a bizarre natural history event at a wood duck nest. John has been studying within-species brood parasitism in several populations of these ducks near Davis, California for the past decade. Some background before the bizarre observation. Wood ducks lay eggs in each others’ nests with reckless abandon and we are trying to figure out the adaptive basis (if any) of this ‘conspecific brood parasitism’. Parasitism is so common that most nests seem to have eggs from more than one female and some nests with 40 or 50 eggs are not that uncommon.

John Eadie checks a duck box at a site near Butte City, California:

A hen incubating in a box:
Example of a large clutch that results when several females lay in the same box. The different colored eggs were laid by different females so the parasitism in this nest can be seen with the naked eye:

Wood ducks nest in tree cavities (and nest boxes) and the ducklings are famous for leaping from the high nests the day after they hatch. Because we were monitoring nests closely, we knew for many nests when the ducklings hatched, and we decided to stake out one nest and watch the little jumpers in action the day after hatch. This nest was right beside our cabin, so we were able to sit in our cars and watch the nest departure without disturbing the hen or her ducklings.

The mother duck was very cautious about having the kids leave the nest (the kids seem to wait for a signal from mom before jumping). She came to and from the nest box three different times, each time sitting in the entrance for at least five minutes time scanning the surroundings carefully. Unfortunately, the local scrub jay pair had learned that a duck box is a lunch box and had been around earlier in the morning checking things out, so perhaps they jays had made her cautious. She finally flew to the ground, walked around quietly for a bit and then must have called to the ducklings because they suddenly started coming out of the box like popping popcorn.

Female flying to the ground to finally call the ducklings out:

Out they came!
The ducklings seem to get a bit of lift from their webbed feet:

The ducklings came out in batches—three or four in a pulse, then a break for few minutes, and then another three or four.  Unfortunately, we don’t know if this pulsed departure is a normal departure pattern because as soon as the first duckling hit the ground one of the scrub jays swooped in, snatched the duckling and took it off and killed it. The jays grabbed a couple of the first ducklings to jump. We suspect that this freaked out the female because she took the ducklings away into the woods when only only eight of the total of 18 ducklings had left the nest. Ten ducklings remained in the box.

The scrub jays show up:

The scrub jay dispatches a duckling:
Many of the ten ducklings in the box did eventually jump but since Mom was not there to give them instructions, they just sat under the nest box peeping their heads off. After a few minutes they started wandering about aimlessly:

The jays got two more ducklings, but then something astonishing happened. A male California quail rushed in and started defending the ducklings—he attacked the jays three times when they came in for a duckling and  prevented them from getting any. The ducklings then followed him around for 45 minutes as he fed at the edge of the woods. The quail was clearly conflicted about the situation because, in addition to chasing off the jays, he also frequently pecked at the ducklings. After about half an hour, the quail and the ducklings went into the woods and the ducklings eventually stopped peeping. We could hear the female duck in the woods not far off, calling to ducklings, so our best guess is that she came back and got the remaining ducklings.

Male quail with his temporary adoptees:


John and I were pretty stunned by this interaction and we do not have a good explanation for what happened. Male quail defend their own chicks them against predators. One possibility is that the duckling distress calls were similar enough to the distress calls of baby quail that they triggered his defensive response.  That he pecked at them, however, suggests that something was not quite right to him.

There are a few bizarre examples of ‘misdirected’ parental care like this in the literature. My favorite example is the textbook classic shown below: a male cardinal photographed feeding goldfish (from the web by unknown photographer). The gaping fish may have resembled begging baby birds.



  1. rickflick
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    Cross species care is often amusing, but the cardinal feeding goldfish is something you really wouldn’t expect. I wonder how it got started?

  2. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    I think their proposed explanation about the quail is quite reasonable. Strongly selected behaviors are readily triggered with the right cues, and parental care behaviors should be triggered by things like the cheeping calls of little chicks. We humans react the same way, after all.

    • Posted December 6, 2016 at 8:10 am | Permalink

      I wonder whether male quail normally show paternal behavior with their own chicks. I guess I could look it up, but I’m lazy.

      • Mark Sturtevant
        Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:57 am | Permalink

        I see pictures online where both the male and female are out herding their chicks. This suggests cooperative rearing. They are adorable too.

      • Bill Morrison
        Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:20 am | Permalink

        Grey partridges(Perdix perdix) including the males are known to adopt partridge chicks presented to them. They have a strong instinct to foster. It is part of systems of restocking this species. The male quail in this story probably shares this same babysitting instinct.

  3. eric
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    Do the quail and the jays in the area compete for territory and resources? Perhaps the behavior is also partly due to that competition. Something along the lines of “if the jays want it – whatever it is – I’m not going to let them have it.”

    Kind of like lions and cheetah. They don’t hunt the same animals so there is really not much reason to compete, but nevertheless lions will always take the opportunity to deny cheetahs a meal, kill their young, or drive them away.

    • Bruce Lyon
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      The relationship is not competition. The jays were killing the ducklings to eat them. In some areas the jays are pretty predatory and there are accounts of jays taking down mourning doves and adult songbirds. The particularly pair of jays involved with this duck fledgling had earlier been seen (by us) going into a nest box and preying on duck eggs. Cause and effect was a bit harder to figure out on that one—- house painters were painting the cabins, which kept the hen away from the nest and it seemed like the jays got into the nest while the hen was off.

      • eric
        Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:44 am | Permalink

        I guess what I was asking was: do the quails regularly fight with the jays over other things?

        • Bruce Lyon
          Posted December 6, 2016 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

          Actually I am not sure. They have such different diets and habitat needs that my informed guess would be that they do not.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:48 am | Permalink

        I don’t know the birds you’re talking of, but I suspect that your jays are always predatory. But most of the time they predate on insects.

  4. Heather Hastie
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    What a wonderful story with great pics! Thanks so much for sharing.

  5. Christopher
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    I would, in my armchair amateur biologist mind, suppose the nest parasitism of wood ducks is due to the lack of acceptable nesting sites in the wild, since they do not excavate their own but rather have to wait for an abandoned woodpecker nest or something similar? Add to that perhaps the ease of dropping your eggs in without being noticed and not incubating them being far less work than finding your own nest site and incubating your own eggs, thinking back to the nest-stealing wasps discussed in Dawkins’ Selfish Gene & Extended Phenotype?

  6. Posted December 6, 2016 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Micks Blog and commented:
    Again some amazing photos, scenarios too!

  7. Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Very cool! Thanks for sharing these!

  8. Siggy in Costa Rica
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Interesting story. I wonder if the in-species brood parasitism is common. I know my chickens often do it. When they start a laying cycle they will often pick a laying box where I’ve left a fake egg or 2 to start laying their own. I would speculate that spreading their clutch among several nest would prevent losing the entire breeding cycle to a predator that might come upon the nest.

    • John Harshman
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      It’s quite common in ducks, at least. Most species of duck will lay eggs in the nests of others, given the opportunity, both within and across species.

      This behavior is probably facilitated by the fact that extra eggs in the nest do not seem to cause any fitness reduction in the adoptive parent. And I suspect that’s true for any species in which the young are precocial and don’t have to be fed by the parent. Compare brood sizes in ducks, which don’t feed their young, and coots, which do.

      Incidentally, there’s one species of duck that’s an obligate brood parasite, black-headed duck Heteronetta atricapilla.

      • Bruce Lyon
        Posted December 6, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink

        Hi John
        Actually coot clutch sizes are often as large as those of some ducks (10-12 eggs). The rub is that coots feed their chicks and the chicks die if not fed. John Eadie and I studied the black-headed duck in Argentina so perhaps I should send some photos of that project to Jerry.

        • John Harshman
          Posted December 6, 2016 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

          Really? Don’t coots generally manage to raise only a single young, sometimes two in a really good year? If so, that’s a huge insurance investment on a big clutch.

          Stifftails rule. Send the photos.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted December 6, 2016 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

        The extra eggs may in fact give the mother a fitness boost via a safety-in-numbers effect. What’s the probability that the ducklings taken by the jays were the genetic offspring of that mother? Without the extra eggs, it would be 100%.

  9. ToddP
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Great story with the bird behaviors. I never knew that jays preyed on ducklings. Interesting, thanks for sharing.

  10. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    The ducklings seem to get a bit of lift from their webbed feet:

    As discussed fairly widely (well, widely amongst the tautologous grouping of dinosaur fans and bird fans) in relation to the “four winged dinosaur”, Microraptor, a decade or so ago.
    conspecific brood parasitism – if it is so prevalent as to be the norm, is it “parasitism” or something more like “commensal brooding” ; while it would seem that the hen laying (“hen(1)”) in some-hen else’s (“hen(2)”) nest is getting a parasitic “free ride” from the parasitised hen(2) looking after hen(1)’s genes ; but hen(1) too is most likely looking after some of hen(3)’s chicks. (Hen(2) may or may not be hen(3).)
    I’m just wondering if putting dispensers of “duck snacks” in each nesting box (so you can be moderately sure that only one hen eats from each container of “duck snacks”), and labelling each supply of “quack snax” with different bio-safe dyes that pass through to be deposited in the egg shells. Then you might be able to really tell if, say, all the hens of an area have a genetic stake in each nestful. Siggy “would speculate that spreading their clutch among several nest would prevent losing the entire breeding cycle to a predator that might come upon the nest”, and that idea very much occurs to me too.
    Using, say, a selection of 3 from a palette of 6 UV-fluorescing dyes (some UV-A, some UV-B) would give you the ability to track 20 potential contributors to a brood. Look up “Smart Water” (, but there are probably competitors) for a commercialised approach to this idea. Though I think they’ve switched to DNA these days.

  11. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    a protective California quail

    Brings a whole new meaning to “quailing” before a threat.

  12. Glenda
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Great photos and narrative. Thank you.

  13. Posted December 7, 2016 at 2:33 am | Permalink

    Wonderful pictures and a great biology lesson!

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