Black-Bellied Whistling-Duck

Dendrocygna autumnalis

Black-Bellied Whistling-Duck

USFWS/Flickr/CC by 2.0

Often mistaken for an exotic goose, the black-bellied whistling-duck is a distinctive duck species and while this member of the Anatidae bird family is common in tropical habitats, these ducks are gradually expanding their range to the north. Birders who get the right facts about the black-bellied whistling-duck won't be fooled or confused when they see these unusual birds, and there is always more to learn about these fun ducks.

Fast Facts

  • Scientific Name: Dendrocygna autumnalis
  • Common Name: Black-Bellied Whistling-Duck, Black-Bellied Tree-Duck, Red-Billed Tree-Duck, Tree Duck, Whistling Duck
  • Lifespan: 6-8 years
  • Size: 19-22 inches
  • Weight: 1.5-1.8 pounds
  • Wingspan: 35 inches
  • Conservation Status: Least concern

Black-Bellied Whistling-Duck Identification

These birds are instantly recognizable as waterfowl with their spatulate-shaped bills and webbed feet, but their long legs and very long neck can make them confusing. Birders should watch for different field marks carefully to be certain these are ducks rather than small geese, and to be sure the species is identified properly.

Male and female black-bellied whistling-ducks look similar. The bill is red or reddish-pink and shows a gray nail on the tip. The face, chin, and throat are grayish-white, and there is a prominent white eye ring. The crown and back of the neck are brown, and the lower neck, breast, and mantle are rich chestnut. The back is more brown than chestnut, and the wings can be paler tan and show a wide white stripe. In flight, the white stripe is prominent down the length of the wing, though it is smaller when the wings are folded. The abdomen, rump, and tail are black, and the undertail coverts are grayish with black barring. The legs and webbed feet are pinkish-red, and the eyes are dark.

Juveniles look similar to adults but are more gray-brown overall, with a brown hindneck. The bill is grayish but will turn pink-red as the duckling matures.

These are noisy ducks that have a squeaky whistle-like call with 3-5 undulating notes. Squealing and twittering sounds are also part of their vocabulary, and a raspier alarm call is heard when these birds feel threatened. In large flocks, calls can become quite overwhelming.

Black-Bellied Whistling Duck Habitat and Distribution

These ducks are adaptable and may be found in woodlands for roosting and nesting, though they often forage in rice fields or damp agricultural areas. They are also found in swamps, wetlands, lagoons, and mud flats, as well as along golf courses or large parks in urban and suburban areas.

Black-bellied whistling-ducks are found year-round in eastern and southern Texas and along both Mexican coasts into Central America and South America. The southernmost extent of this bird's range stretches through Brazil and into northern Argentina, though they are absent from western South America where mountainous regions are unsuitable. There is a small population found year-round in central Florida, and these ducks are also seen in Cuba.

Migration Pattern

While these birds generally do not migrate, some northern populations do expand their summer breeding range, stretching as far north as southern Oklahoma and southwestern Arkansas, southern parts of Georgia, and South Carolina and, in the west, southern Arizona.

Vagrant sightings are often reported well north of this bird's expected range, including in Colorado, Minnesota, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. It is unclear whether these records are genuine vagrant birds, however, or may be escaped ducks from private collections, zoos, or aviaries.

Behavior

These are gregarious birds that are found in small and medium-sized flocks, though larger flocks of 1,000 ducks or more have been noted. Black-bellied whistling-ducks perch high in trees, often over water, and can frequently be heard calling and whistling as they fly to good foraging areas.

Diet and Feeding

Black-bellied whistling-ducks are generally herbivorous and sample a wide range of plant materials, including aquatic vegetation, seeds, and grains. They will also eat small quantities of insects, spiders, mollusks, particularly during the breeding season when ducklings need more protein for proper growth and maturation. These ducks graze easily on the ground, and when in shallow water, will tip up to dabble for vegetation and seeds. They will forage throughout the day and will also often forage at night.

Nesting

These ducks are monogamous and mate for life. The female generally selects the nesting cavity, though there is very little nesting material and the plain white eggs are laid directly on the floor of the cavity. Nesting cavities are generally 8-30 feet above the ground in dead trees or nesting boxes, though these ducks will occasionally nest on the ground under a heavy clump of grasses or weeds.

Eggs and Young

While 12-16 eggs are typical for a single brood, black-bellied whistling-ducks practice egg dumping and up to 100 eggs may be found in communal nests, though few of those eggs will hatch successfully. Both parents share incubation duties for 25-30 days, and the precocial ducklings are able to leave the nest within 24 hours after hatching. Both parents guide and protect their chicks for 140-150 days. Because of the long care period, one brood per year is most common, though, in tropical regions without strong seasonal weather patterns, these ducks may raise two broods each year.

Black-Bellied Whistling-Duck Conservation

These ducks are not considered threatened or endangered, and in some areas, there are regulated hunting seasons that include black-bellied whistling-ducks. Large flocks of these ducks can damage agricultural fields and affect crop production, and the birds may occasionally be persecuted because of that damage. These birds are also susceptible to lead poisoning from discarded fishing sinkers, and fishing line tangles can be a serious threat in roosting and nesting areas.

Tips for Backyard Birders

While these ducks are not common in backyards, they will use duck nesting boxes or snags that have been preserved as suitable nest sites within their range if there is suitable habitat nearby. Providing a ground feeding area with cracked corn or millet can also attract these ducks, especially in rural areas with nearby ponds.

How to Find This Bird

Visiting marshy pond habitats in this duck's range is the key to finding black-bellied whistling-ducks. Look for these ducks in flocks, where they will stand out with their bold coloring as well as their distinctly long legs and necks. Within their range, these ducks are relatively common and easy to see.

Explore More Species in This Family

The Anatidae bird family includes all ducks, geese, and swans, and is one of the most widespread and familiar bird families in the world. Birders can learn many fun facts about ducks, and check out a photo gallery of worldwide ducks, as well as explore other duck species, such as:

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