Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks by Ro Wauer
Maybe because of the great amount of wet weather this year, but I have seen more than the usual numbers of black-bellied whistling-ducks flying about my neighborhood and elsewhere within the region of Victoria, DeWitt and Goliad counties. These relatively large ducks are easy to identify, even in flight. They are distinguished by their large white wing patches on their otherwise black wings, black belly, and a somewhat droopy, arched appearance with their neck and head held lower than the body. And they often hang their legs and feet. On a closer view, their buffy chest, gray head, and red bill are noticeable. And if that isn't sufficient, they often fly in pairs, uttering high-pitched, four-note whistle-calls, from where their name was derived.
Whistling-ducks (there are two species in South Texas, the black-bellied and the less numerous fulvous whistling-duck) utilize cavities for nesting. Tree cavities eight to thirty feet above the ground are preferred, but nest boxes placed in appropriate locations work as well. Rarely, black-bellies have been found nesting on the ground among rushes or grassy areas along lakes or reservoirs. Pairs establish a long-term bond, the female lays nine to eighteen eggs in a cavity-nest, both parents incubate the eggs, and the very precocial youngsters leave the nest within 18 to 24 hours after hatching. One by one, they jump to the ground when encouraged by the female parent. The brood then moves to the water where they remain with their parents for about six months.
After fledging, broods join with other broods, often forming large flocks. Although most of our local birds move southward for the winter months, a flock or two usually remains through the winter months, especially at preferred locations where they are able to find sufficient food. Their diet consists of a wide variety of small creatures that can be found in the water, such as snails and insects. But they also forage in cultivated fields for seeds, grains, and invertebrates. In Texas, both the black-bellied and fulvous whistling-ducks are often found feeding in flooded fields, especially in rice fields.
Black-bellied whistling-ducks reside only in South Texas and central Florida in the U.S, although they also occur in south Arizona in summer. They are a really unique duck, very different than the other members of the Anatidae Family that includes ducks, swans and geese. North American ducks can be divided into eight groupings: (1) perching ducks, such as the wood duck; (2) dabbling ducks, pond ducks that tip up to reach aquatic plants, seeds and snails, such as teal, widgeon, and pintails; (3) pochards, usually bay ducks such as canvasbacks and redheads; (4) eiders, cold ocean ducks such as eiders; (5) sea ducks, diving ducks such as scoters and goldeneyes; (6) mergansers, fish-eaters such as the mergansers; (7) stiff-tailed ducks, little ducks with a stiff tail, such as ruddy and masked ducks; and (8) the two whistling-ducks.
In winter, we can expect the majority of the perching, dabbling, pochards and stiff-tailed ducks in our ponds and reservoirs. The sea ducks are most likely only in our bays. Eiders do not occur in Texas waters. But the most likely duck to be found flying about our neighborhoods is the black-bellied whistling-duck. A marvelous addition to our South Texas birdlife!