If you haven’t seen the oddest-looking duck in Georgia yet, grab a pair of binoculars or a shotgun and get outdoors. Black-bellied whistling ducks have expanded their range and are now a documented breeding species in several Georgia counties.
Often referred to as “tree ducks” due to their peculiar habit of perching on tree branches (among other things), black-bellied whistling ducks look as odd as they sound sailing over your decoy spread. Their unique coloring of black-and-white wings mixed with a brown chest, black belly, pink feet, bright red bill and white eye-ring make them stick out amongst more common waterfowl in Georgia. Top that off with a peculiar call that explains why they are a member of the whistling duck group (native to Central and South America) and you’ve got an exciting bird to have in Georgia and one that can stir excitement among bird watchers and hunters alike.
Black-bellied whistling ducks officially began showing up in Georgia in the late 1990s, and confirmed reports became more frequent through the 2000s. They officially became a confirmed breeder in Georgia in 2006, according to the Georgia Breeding Bird Atlas. Since then the number of sightings and breeding events have steadily increased. There are currently 51 counties in Georgia with documented sightings, 16 of which are documented breeding locations. Most of the birds we get in Georgia are likely a result of Florida’s population expanding northward. Georgia is not alone, as numerous other southeastern states have also seen an increase in sightings.
Putting aside their clownish appearance for a moment, black-bellied whistling ducks have many other unique characteristics worthy of mention. For example, males and females are virtually identical, a pretty rare trait among waterfowl but typical for other whistling ducks. They also mate for life but will form a new pair if one dies. Lifelong pair-bonding is often assumed for many ducks but is actually pretty rare phenomenon for ducks that is more common in geese and swans. Males and females also share incubation duties, which is an extremely rare trait in waterfowl. They also have some unique adaptations that allow them to forage a little differently from some other waterfowl species. For example, they primarily graze on land verses aquatic food in wetlands and have a unique bill that allows them to strip vegetation easier. Their eyes are equipped with special adaptations that provide them with great eyesight in very low-light conditions. They use this adaptation to forage at night, and they are the most nocturnal of all whistling ducks.
By now you might be asking where can I find one of these ducks and what can I do to get more of them. Black-bellied whistling ducks, like wood ducks, nest in tree cavities or nest boxes, but unlike wood ducks, they will also nest on the ground. It is unclear to what extent black-bellied whistling ducks compete with wood ducks for nesting locations, if at all. What we do know about their use of nest boxes is very similar to what we have seen with wood ducks. When nest boxes are too close to each other or in plain sight of each other, the frequency of brood parasitism increases dramatically.
Brood parasitism is when a hen lays her eggs in the nest box of another hen hoping the other hen will incubate her eggs, too. While this may seem like a pretty clever strategy, it actually leads to less overall production because the hen left with all the eggs typically abandons the nest altogether. When that happens, both nests have been lost.
Landowners and managers should avoid clumping nest boxes together and spread them out in a way that would more closely resemble naturally occurring tree cavities. This approach will benefit wood ducks and black-bellied whistling ducks alike.
Black-bellied whistling ducks also like to eat waste grain and can often be found in shallow wetlands or flooded or dry agricultural fields. Quality management of natural wetlands and flooded agricultural fields will promote good habitat conditions for all waterfowl, including black-bellied whistling ducks. For example, the waterfowl impoundments at Altamaha WMA consists of more than 3,000 acres of well-managed waterfowl habitat and has numerous black-bellied whistling ducks. This is a result of quality wetland management for waterfowl.
Black-bellied whistling ducks are legal to harvest, but they don’t have a special line in the regulations. They are just included in the general ducks part of the regs. Several are shot on Altamaha WMA each year.
If you are fortunate enough to catch one of these unique birds at the end of your shotgun, take a moment to truly enjoy the experience of your encounter with Georgia’s most recent addition to the waterfowl community.
Editor’s Note: Mark D. McConnell is a wildlife specialist at UGA’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.