Broadly distributed in South and Central America, the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck’s range reaches into the southern U.S. Typically mating for life, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks nonetheless occasionally change mates, and will re-mate after the death of one of the pair.
Male and female Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks share incubation duties, and typically trade 24-hour shifts. Multiple females often lay eggs in the same nest, leading to very large clutch sizes in some cases. Such nests are less likely to hatch.
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Description of the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
The Black-bellied Whistling-Duck is mostly reddish-brown, with a black belly, a gray face, a white eye ring, and a reddish orange bill. The leading edge of the wing is similar to the chestnut color of the body. The secondary coverts are white. Black primaries have a white base. Long wing stripe visible in flight. Length: 21 in. Wingspan: 30 in.
Seasonal change in appearance
Gray belly, paler body, dark legs and dark grey bill.
Marshes and ponds.
Seeds and grains.
Forages mostly on land, but sometimes dabbles.
Occurs in the southernmost U.S., and south to South America. Population increasing.
Bent Life History
Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Black-bellied Whistling Duck.
Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks have expanded their range northward in recent years, but these northern breeders often move south for the winter, while most others are resident year-round.
Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks typically pair for life.
A four-note whistle.
Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks will use nest boxes.
Fulvous Whistling-Ducks lack black bellies and have extensive black on their wings and back.
Immature Fulvous Whistling-Duck could be confused with an immature Black-bellied Whistling-Duck. Fulvous has a white stripe on the side and dark wings without a wing stripe.
The nest is in a tree cavity or nest box.
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 25-30 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) 1-2 days after hatching days but remain with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
DENDROCYGNA AUTUMNALIS (Linnaeus)
As I have never seen either of the tree ducks in life, I shall have to quote wholly from the writings of others; and very little has been published about this species, which is to be found in only a very limited area north of the Rio Grande. Writing of its habits near Fort Brown, Texas, Dr. J. C. Merrill (1878) says:
This large and handsome bird arrives from the south in April, and is soon found in abundance on the river banks and lagoons. Migrating at night, it continually utters a very peculiar chattering whistle, which at once indicates its presence. Called by the Mexicans potos maizal, or cornfield duck, from its habit of frequenting those localities. It is by no means shy, and large numbers are offered for sale in the Brownsville market. Easily domesticated, it becomes very tame, roosting at night in trees with chickens and turkeys. When the females begin to lay, the males leave them, and gather In large flocks on sandbars in the river.
Nesting: Mr. George B. Sennett (1879) writes:
First noticed early in May, in pairs, at Lomita, looking for nesting places. Soon after it became quite common. During the mating season It Is found about In trees of open woodland, and very tame. It nests in hollow trees without regard to nearness of water. I was shown the nest from which a set of 12 eggs was taken the season before. It was in an ebony tree in an open grove, near the houses of the ranch, and much frequented; was about 9 feet from the ground, in a hollow branch, with no lining but the chips from the rotten wood.
Four sets of eggs in the United Statcs National Museum, collected near Brownsville, Texas, were taken from nests in holes in elms and willows, 10 or 12 feet from the ground. Another set is said to have been taken from a nest on the ground, among rushes, weeds, and grass, on the edge of a lake. The tree nests were mostly in “big woods,” ustlally near a lake or creek, and no lining was found in the nests except the rotten wood in the hollows. Doctor Merrill (1878) says that “the eggs are deposited in hollow trees and branches, often at a considerable distance from water (2 miles), and from 8 to 30 feet or more from the ground.”
Eggs: Doctor Merrill (1878) says that “two broods ~re raised,” but Mr. Sennett (1879) was “of the opinion that but one brood is reared in a season.” By reference to the egg dates, given below, it will be seen that the nesting season is very much prolonged, which suggests the possibility that two broods might be raised.
The black-bellied tree duck does not lay such large sets of eggs as its relative, the fulvous tree duck; from 12 to 16 eggs usually constitute a full set, the smaller number being more often found. The eggs are ovate or short ovate in shape, the shell is sometimes smooth and not at all glossy, but in other specimens it is highly glossy and very finely pitted; the color is white or creamy white, with occasional nest stains. The measurements of 99 eggs, in various collections, average 52.3 by 38.3 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 58.5 by 39.5, 54.2 by 425, 41.5 by 28.7 and 43.7 by 28.6 millimeters.
Young: According to Doctor Merrill (1878) “the parent carries the young to water in her bill.” And Mr. George N. Lawrence (1874) quotes Col. A. J. Grayson as saying: “The young are lowered to the ground one at a time in t.he mouth of the mother; after all are safely landed she then cautiously leads her young brood to the nearest water.”
Plumages: Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1884) describe the downy young as follows:
Above, blackish brown, varied by large areas of suiphury buff, as follows: A supraloral streak extending over the eye; a wide stripe from the bill under the eye and extending across the occiput, the blackish below It extending forward onl~’ about as far as directly beneath the eye, and confluent posteriorly with the nuchal longitudinal stripe of the same color; a pair of suiphury buff patches on each side of the black, and another on each side of the rump; posterior half of the wing whitish buff, the end of the wing blackish; the black of the upper parts sends off two lateral projections on each side, the first on each side of the crop, the second over the flanks to the tibiae; the buff of the abdomen extending upward in front of this last stripe as far as the middle portion of the buff spot on the side of the back. Lower parts wholly whitish buff, paler and less yellowish along the middle.
A bird in my collection, taken September 11, is apparently in the juvenal or first winter plumage. The bright rufus of the upper parts is replaced by duller shades of pale browns; and the under parts are uniform pale grayish buff, with no traces of the rufous breast or black belly; the bill is dusky. I have seen a bird in similar plumage, collected February 7, in which the color pattern of the under parts of the adult is faintly indicated. Apparently this immature plumage is worn at least through the first fall and winter and perhaps until the first postnuptial molt, the next summer.
Food: This species is locally known as the “cornfield duck,” on account of its habits of frequenting the cornfields to feed on the corn, where it is said to do considerable damage. Mr. Sennett (1878) writes:
Late in August, the young not full grown are seen about the coracribs picking up the refuse corn, at which time Mr. Bourbois says they afford most excellent eating. This bird does not alight in the water as do other ducks hut on the land, and wades about in shallow water for food. When corn is nearly ripe, it alights on the stalks, strips the ears of their husks, and pulls the grain from the cob, making this its chief food during the season. I never saw it skulk in the grass for cover, hut always take wing and fly to the woods, or to some removed open point hy the water. It is a pretty sight to see this bird on some dead stub, pluming itself, its color and shape being very handsome.
Behavior: Colonel Grayson, in his notes, quoted by Mr. Lawrence (1874), says:
This duck perches with facility on the branches of trees, and when in the cornfields, upon the stalks, in order to reach the ears of corn. Large flocks of them spend the day on the bank of some secluded lagoon, densely bordered with woods or water flags, also sitting among the branches of trees, not often feeding or stirring about during the day. When upon the wing they constantly utter their peculiar whistle of pe-chc-ehe-n~, from which they have received their name from the natives. (The other species is called Duradoj I have noticed that this species seldom lights in deep water, always prefering the shallow water edges. or the ground; the cause of this may be from the fear of the numerous all5gators that usually infest the lagoons.
When taken young, or tile eggs hatched under the common barnyard hen, they become very domestic without being confined; they are very watchful during the night, and, like the goose, give the alarm by their shrIll whistle when any strange animal or person comes about the house. A lady of my acquaintance possessed a pair which she said were as good as the best watchdog; I also had a pair which were equally as vigilant, and very docile.
Doctor Sanford (1903) writes:
In April, 1901, I found these birds abundant in the vicinity of Tampico, Mexico. They were most often seen in small flocks of from 4 to 10 on the banks at the edge of the lagoon. Their long legs gave them an odd look. At our approach they would run together, raising their long necks much like geese. The flight was peculiar and characteristic, io~v dawn and in a line, their large wings with white hands presenting a striking aspect, and giving the impression of a much larger bird. We saw them occasionally on the smaller ponds, and shot several, all of them males. In one or two instances the appearance of the breast inllicated the bird had been sitting on eggs. While the males of this species are supposed to attend to their own affairs during the period of incubation, it would seem as if they occasionally assisted in nesting duties. Once or twice I sa~v them near small ponds in woods, apparently iiesting, flying from tree to tree with perfect ease, exhibiting some concern at our presence.
Winter: Prof. W. W. Cooke (1906) says:
It winters in Mexico at least as far north as central Vera Cruz (Vega del Casadero) and Mazatlan. North of this district it is strictly migratory, and throughout most, if not all, of its ranges in Central America there seems to be a shifting of location between the winter and the summer homes, but no data are available to determine the movements with accuracy.
Since writing the above life history I have visited the Brownsville region in the lower Rio Grande Valley and made a special effort to learn something about the two tree ducks, which were formerly so abundant there. I did not see a specimen of either species. Capt. R. D. Camp, who has spent some 13 years in studying and collecting birds in that region, told me that the black-bellied tree duck had entirely disappeared from the Brownsville region and that the fulvous tree duck had become very scarce. He took me to a resaca where he had seen a pair of the latter this spring, 1923, but we saw no trace of the birds.
Breeding range: East to the Gulf coasts of Texas and Mexico. South to Panama (River Truando). West to the Pacific coast of Mexico (Mazatlan). North to southern Texas (lower Rio Grande Valley) and irregularly north to Corpus Christi and perhaps Kerrville. Known to breed in Porto Rico and Trinidad and probably breeds in some of the other West Indies.
Winter range: Resident in most of its range. Winters at least as far north as Vera Cruz and Mazatlan.
Migrations: Arrives in Texas in April and leaves in September, October, and November.
Casual records: Has wandered to Arizona (Tucson, May 5, 189~) and southern California (Imperial Valley, fall, 1912).
Egg dates: Texas: Sixteen records, May 3 to October 18; eight records, June 20 to July 14.
Friday 5th of May 2023
Spotted today on pond in Broken Arrow Oklahoma. 5/5/2023