Black Bellied Whistling Duck – The Complete Guide
Observant waterfowlers in the deep south may have noticed a noisy newcomer on the rice flats. With their long necks, brightly colored feet and bills, and boisterous whistling, a black bellied whistling duck can make quite an entrance over an early teal season decoy spread.
Traditionally confined to Central and South America, black bellied whistling ducks have gradually expanded their range in recent years. Information on these birds is still scarce in the hunting community. In this article, we’ll give you the rundown on this unique bird. We’ll talk about how to identify them, discuss some of their habits and preferred habitats, and talk with veteran hunter and call-maker Rob Haydel of Haydel’s Game Calls Inc to see if we can pick up some tips to apply this duck season.
- Black Bellied Whistling Duck Fun Facts
- Black Bellied Whistling Duck Range
- Black Bellied Whistling Duck Identification
- Black Bellied Whistling Duck Hunting Season
- Black Bellied Whistling Duck Hunting
- Black Bellied Whistling Duck Call
- Black Bellied Whistling Duck Decoys
- Tips For Hunting Black Bellied Whistling Ducks
- Are Black Bellied Whistling Ducks Good To Eat?
- Black Bellied Whistling Duck Final Thoughts
Black Bellied Whistling Duck Fun Facts
Different Names For Black Bellied Whistling Duck
The Latin name for the black bellied whistling duck is Dendrocygna autumnalis. When the species was first formally described, they were referred to as red-billed whistling ducks. They are sometimes alternatively referred to as black bellied tree ducks (or simply tree ducks) due to their habit of roosting on limbs, much like wood ducks. They are sometimes called Mexican squealers or Mexican whistlers due to the variety of high-pitched, airy, whistling noises they make in flight and their origin south of the border. And since “black bellied whistling duck” is a bit of a mouthful, hunters and bird watchers frequently resort to the shorthand “whistlers,” to refer to them and other members of their family.
Black Belly Whistling Duck Biology
Unlike most ducks hunters may be familiar with, black bellied whistling ducks do not winter in the southern US. Instead, the deep south serves as their breeding grounds and they retreat to Mexico and Central America for the winter. This means that in all but the southernmost areas of the country, whistling ducks can be a rare occurrence by the time regular duck season comes in. However, whistlers are expanding their northern range slowly but steadily.
Also somewhat unusual is their feeding pattern, which is opposite to other puddle ducks. Whistlers are odd in that they feed mainly at night. Early morning usually finds them heading back to their roost trees instead of to the shallow waters and flooded fields where they feed on invertebrates, seeds, and aquatic vegetation.
Whistlers are very gregarious and stay in constant communication with each other. Active ducks emit an almost constant stream of various whistling sounds as they feed or fly in loose flocks.
They’re generally sexually mature in their first year, and pair-bond during their first winter. These pairings generally last for life, much like in geese and swans. Whistlers are cavity nesters, and typically lay between 9 and 18 eggs per clutch.
Black Bellied Whistling Duck Range
In the US, whistler populations are mostly confined to Texas, Louisiana, southern Mississippi, southern Alabama, south Georgia, and Florida. However, small flocks or individual birds occasionally show up throughout the midwest. These birds seem to do well in many of the suburban habitats that Canada geese thrive in, such as golf courses, parks, residential ponds, and agricultural fields.
In Mexico and Central America, they are a common species along the Gulf and Pacific coasts. They are also prevalent throughout South America, particularly Brazil.
Are Black Bellied Whistling Ducks Protected?
Black bellied whistling ducks are protected, like all North American Waterfowl, by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. This means that the US Fish and Wildlife Service oversees hunting seasons for the species on a federal level.
Currently, most states allow harvest of whistlers by properly licensed hunters during their regular duck season.
Black Bellied Whistling Duck Identification
Whistlers are a graceful, medium sized duck. Their upper body is a uniform reddish brown which is separated from their namesake belly by white trim. They have a long, delicate neck and an upright posture reminiscent of a goose or heron. Their bill and feet are a bright pink, and their head is a khaki-hued grey.
They are easy to identify when working decoys. In flight, their long neck and feet cause a “droopy” look. They seem to fly slower than most ducks, and their black and white wing coloration combined with their near constant whistling is a dead giveaway.
Black Bellied Whistling Duck Male Vs Female
Black bellied whistling ducks are monomorphic. Monomorphism is when there is no readily-apparent physical difference between male and females of a species. Again, this sets the species apart from most ducks that waterfowlers encounter, which are dimorphic, or exhibit striking differences between the sexes.
However, the immature first year birds are noticeably smaller and drabber than the adults. This can cause them to be mistaken for females of the species by inexperienced observers.
Black Bellied Whistling Duck Vs Fulvous Whistling Duck
The Fulvous Whistling Duck Dendrocygna bicolor is a closely related species that shares the range and many habits of the black bellied whistling duck. They are both Central/South American species with their northernmost range extending into the US, they are both tree nesters, they both feed at night, the both pair bond, and they both make a distinctive whistling call.
However, physically the ducks are very different from each other. Fulvous whistling ducks have a redder chestnut hue to their body and black hatching on their backs. They have blueish-gray feet and bills, and lack the whistlers namesake black belly.
Black Bellied Whistling Duck Hunting Season
At the time of writing, black bellied whistling ducks generally fall under the regular duck season in states they are present in. Hunters are typically limited to 6 ducks per person, per day. Before going out in search of whistlers, be sure to check with your state and local conservation officials to verify local regulations.
Black Bellied Whistling Duck Hunting
Rob Haydel from Haydel’s Game Calls Inc was kind enough to share his knowledge of black bellied whistling duck hunting with us. Rob is a veteran hunter, an experienced caller, and an astute observer of his local marshes.
Black Bellied Whistling Duck Call
Haydel’s is one of the few call makers currently offering a purpose-built black bellied whistling duck call. Like many of their designs, it was the result of listening not only to the ducks, but to hunters.
“About eight years ago, I got a phone call from a hunter and biologist that was in college doing some studies on black bellied tree ducks over in Texas,” says Rob. “And he was really adamant that his research was indicating that they were migrating further and further north every year. He felt that the populations were increasing and that if we could develop a call that mimicked them that it would be useful, not just for him personally, but for other hunters as well. So we started playing around with some prototypes. They were pretty crude initially, to be honest, but what was important is that we were eventually able to recreate that sound. That’s the most important part. Eventually, we ended up with the design you see in our W-19 “The Whistler” Call.”
According to Rob, “Most of the “6-in-1” type whistles that you see people making are designed to have a very clean and clear sounding whistle. But if you listen to your black bellied and your fulvous ducks, they have more of an airy sound, for lack of a better word. They don’t have that pure, high tone that most whistles produce. You can get close to a whistling duck sound with a 6-in-1, but if you really want to get as close to the natural sound as possible it needs to be airy. That’s what we really strove for with our call.”
Unlike a standard mallard hen call, the whistler is very easy to blow, making it kid and guest friendly.
Says Rob, “It’s very easy to hand a kid this whistle and tell him, “Imitate what those birds are doing.” It gives them a way to be part of the hunt instead of just standing around slapping mosquitoes and rummaging through the snack bag. It’s a great call for them to start learning the art of calling; how to listen to and imitate the birds you’re hunting. And they can’t really mess it up. I tell people all the time, you can play “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on a whistle call and you’re not going to scare ducks off with it. It’s a great call for kids, and it’s a great “brother-in-law” call, if you know what I mean!”
Black Bellied Whistling Duck Decoys
According to Rob, “I don’t really put out whistling duck decoys, personally. We just don’t get them in droves where we hunt; they’re just occasional visitors during teal season for the most part. But for guys further south, I’d say absolutely have a few out. We always have our calls with us, and they will absolutely make a second and third pass just like a mallard. There are a few manufacturers starting to make whistling duck decoys, and I’m sure they help for guys who have bigger populations.”
For those “guys further south,” Bluewinged Productions makes a realistic silhouette black bellied whistling duck decoy. It’s a great option for hunters looking to add a few decoys to their standard spread to capitalize on any opportunities whistlers may present.
Tips For Hunting Black Bellied Whistling Ducks
Rob offered a few tips for hunters looking to bag a few whistlers.
“They’re really more like a goose in some ways,” he says. “I see them pretty frequently in rice flats and agricultural fields. They seem drawn to parks and neighborhoods too. Just yesterday, I had a single fly over my house, and at one time I had some roosting in the backyard for a while. They’re definitely not shy of people.”
Another important thing to keep in mind is that whistlers are on an opposite schedule to other puddle ducks. They feed mostly at night, which means that first light sees them returning to roost with the same single-mindedness most ducks possess in the evenings. They’re not necessarily looking to feed or loaf when and where other ducks are. If you’re looking for whistling ducks, it’s good to remember that they’re likely returning to the roost in the AM, and that roost is probably at the treeline in a willow or cypress tree somewhere.
Are Black Bellied Whistling Ducks Good To Eat?
According to Rob, yes!
“They’re very good table fare, but they’re a booger to pluck!” he chuckled in our interview. “Kinda like a specklebelly goose. Tasty, but a booger to pluck. Most people end up skinning them.”
Most hunters agree with Rob’s analysis. Some veteran whistling duck hunters have even compared them to sandhill cranes, the much-venerated “ribeye of the sky!” Given that they feed primarily on grain and seeds whenever possible, this is not surprising.
Black Bellied Whistling Duck Final Thoughts
Black bellied whistling ducks are a welcome addition to a waterfowler’s strap. Whereas there are growing conservation concerns for many other species (recently there’s much discussion about eliminating the already meager pintail duck limit, for example) black bellied whistling duck populations seem to be stable and even growing, which is great news for many hunters. It’s possible that in the years to come they will become a staple for southern waterfowlers.
As they extend their range, hunters should have more access to this unique and tasty bird. Be sure to keep an eye out for them this duck season, especially during early teal, and bring a whistle…just in case!