Black-Bellied Whistling-Duck

Dendrocygna autumnalis

Black-Bellied Whistling-Duck
Black-Bellied Whistling-Duck. USFWS

Often mistaken for an exotic goose, the black-bellied whistling-duck is a distinctive duck species and while it is common in tropical habitats, these ducks are gradually expanding their range to the north.

Common Name: Black-Bellied Whistling-Duck, Black-Bellied Tree-Duck, Red-Billed Tree-Duck, Tree Duck, Whistling Duck

Scientific Name: Dendrocygna autumnalis

Scientific Family: Anatidae

Appearance:

  • Size: 19-22 inches long with 35-inch wingspan, long legs, very long neck, broad wings
  • Colors: Gray, white, black, red, pink, chestnut, tan
  • Markings: Genders are similar. The face, chin and throat are grayish-white, and there is a prominent white eye ring. The crown and hindneck 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.

Foods: Aquatic vegetation, seeds, grains, insects, spiders, mollusks (See: Herbivorous)

Habitat and Migration:

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 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.

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.

Vocalizations:

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.

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 will forage at night, calling and whistling as they fly to good foraging areas. They graze easily on the ground, and when in shallow water, will tip up to dabble for vegetation and seeds.

Reproduction:

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.

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, these ducks may raise two broods each year.

Attracting Black-Bellied Whistling-Ducks:

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.

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.

Similar Birds:

  • Fulvous Whistling-Duck (Dendrocygna bicolor)
  • West Indian Whistling-Duck (Dendrocygna arborea)
  • Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus)

Photo – Black-Bellied Whistling-Duck © USFWS