The Black Bellied Whistling Duck: Dendrocygna Autumnalis

The old maxim holds that, “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck,” but with proportions more akin to those of a wading bird and a voice like a dog’s squeaky toy, this bit of abductive reasoning doesn’t snugly apply to one of Florida’s more recent avian arrivals: the strange and handsome Black-bellied Whistling-Duck.

The bird’s traditional range was the Amazon Basin in South America and coastal wetlands north through Central America into south Texas. In the early 1980s it expanded its range into central Florida with a colony of around 500 individuals near Sarasota. The ‘90s brought another population explosion and range expansion and it seems that the species is experiencing yet another boom with the attractive leggy waterfowl turning up with increasing frequency at wetlands across the Sunshine State.

What Does A Black-Bellied Whistling Duck Look Like?

With its neon coral pink bill and webbed feet, black-bellies are quite obviously ducks, but the similarity to run-of-the-mill barnyard ducks ends there. Black-bellies sport long legs and necks and walk with more of a stately sashay than a ducky waddle. And though they are accomplished swimmers, black-bellies may just as often be seen wading in shallow water alongside similarly-sized ibis.

How Black Bellied Whistling Ducks Behave

Formerly known as the “black bellied tree-duck,” this species habitually perches in trees and prefers to nest high off the ground in tree cavities and can be lured with human-made nest boxes. The black-belly’s approach to love and marriage is also characteristically un-duck-like.

Many duck species court as many prospective partners as possible, often not very gently, but the black-bellied whistling duck forms strong monogamous pair bonds with both sexes cooperatively rearing and protecting the young, a trait more typical of swans and geese. Black-bellied whistling ducks love a crowd and are exceptionally gregarious, often forming large talkative flocks and even mingling with white and glossy ibis to roost and search for food.

The Diet of Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks

Active by day or night, black-bellies do the bulk of their feeding after dark, dabbling for water plants, invertebrates, small fish and tadpoles in wetlands and foraging for insects, grasses, herbs and waste grain in agricultural fields. Flocks of black-bellies are easily spotted winging overhead at dawn and dusk, moving between feeding and roosting sites.

If the long gangly necks, legs and wings and bold white wing bars aren’t enough of a dead give-away identification cue in flight, black-bellies are usually heard before they’re seen. They announce their approach with a clangor of wheezing squeaks and squeals, uncannily reminiscent of a handful of rubber dog chew toys being squeezed all at once.

How the Black-Bellied Whistling Duck Behaves

In recent years, this species has displayed a penchant for wanderlust with flocks expanding their territory and turning up far outside their regular range in such far-flung locales as Iowa, Michigan, Maryland, Quebec and Nova Scotia. It is likely just a matter of time before black-bellied whistling-Ducks visit your local wetlands, if they haven’t done so already.

Homeowners and property managers can encourage these dapper waterfowl to hang around with conservation-minded wetland management, exotic plant control, native wetland plant installation and strategic placement of nest boxes in suitable habitat. With proper wetland management and a little luck, that old duck test adage might begin to read more like, “If it walks like a runway model and quacks like Fido’s favorite plaything, it must be a Black-bellied Whistling-Duck.”

Where Does A Black Bellied Whistling Duck Make Its Nest?

The black-bellied whistling duck often nests in colonies in tree hollows created by a broken limb or where the trunk has rotten away. Their nests are usually close to the water but may be up to a quarter-mile away from it. They also use man-made nest boxes and occasionally nest on the ground.

When nesting in natural cavities in trees or stumps, the black-bellied whistling duck generally doesn’t build a nest but lay eggs directly on wood chips or whatever debris has collected in the tree hollow. Ground nests are usually woven of grasses and weeds. In addition, this duck has been known to nest in barns and chimneys.

One or two days after hatching, ducklings climb out of the nests and jump to the ground. The ducklings are cared for by both parents and forage for their own food. They fledge at approximately 2 months.

What Does a Black Bellied Whistling Duck Sound Like?

True to its name, the black-bellied whistling duck calls with a soft, high whistle that begins with a long first note and is followed by several more notes. It has a clear, whistling waa-chooo sound and has been described as a 4-syllable pe-che-che-ne sound in which the “pe” is the long, drawn-out note. They give the call while in flight, standing, or swimming. They also make a loud cheet-cheet or chit-chit-chit while in flight and a distinctive yip when taking off.

Do Whistling Ducks Swim?

Although these ducks can swim, they spend more time walking on land or perching in trees than most other ducks. You may also see them perched on telephone lines or perched high in dead trees.