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Black-bellied whistling ducks are on the rise in Indiana

Black-bellied whistling ducks are on the rise in Indiana

In 2017, the first black-bellied whistling ducks were reported in Vanderburgh County, Indiana.

The following year, on July 28, two adults and 14 chicks were photographed in Posey County, confirming Indiana’s first breeding record.

Now, just seven years after that first sighting, southwestern Indiana’s black-bellied whistling ducks have regular breeding populations and are near-common sightings throughout the region.

That’s a big change. In fact, until 2000, black-bellied whistling ducks were found primarily in coastal areas of the southern United States, Mexico, and tropical Central and South America, and even then only small populations inhabited the coasts of Texas and Louisiana. According to the Encyclopedia of Life (eol.org), the ducks now “can be found year-round throughout much of the United States, and have been recorded in all eastern states and adjacent Canadian provinces.”

An updated map of black-bellied whistling duck distribution on eBird, an online reporting site on what’s happening where, illustrates scattered sightings as far north as Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Locally, statistics show a 10-year increase of 20% to 25%, with the highest individual count of 49 recorded in 2022 in Greene County. The highest individual count this year so far has been 25, also in Greene County. Most sightings in the area peak in late July, but incidental sightings appear as early as March. The most recent reported sighting occurred last week in Spencer County.

Undoubtedly, many sightings go unreported.

Even in profile, black-bellied whistling ducks would be hard to mistake. The sexes are identical, so it’s a straightforward identification. A bit like geese, they have long legs, long necks and an upright stance and they walk, not sway. Chestnut-brown with the black bellies that give their species its name, they’re really dark ducks, except for that broad white stripe on the wing. Oh, and don’t forget the bright pink bill and legs.

Then there is the unmistakable face of the black-bellied whistling duck. Master birder Pete Dunne describes it as having a “harlot-like painted face, displaying too much grey makeup, an oversized lipstick-coloured bill and an exaggerated pale ring around the eye.”

What explains the rapid expansion of their range? Perhaps in search of new territories to accommodate population growth combined with dramatic climate change, they are moving north. As the Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes on its website, “They seem to readily adopt habitats altered by humans, and this has helped them move north.”

Black-bellied birds typically do not migrate, but they do disperse, an ornithological term meaning they wander but remain anchored to a preferred breeding site. They mate for life, find a happy home and settle down. They prefer to nest in cavities, usually in dead tree trunks, and do not build nests.

However, if they have no other choice, they will lay their eggs in a hole in the ground. In some parts of the Deep South, some of the black-bellied chicks have adapted to and accepted man-made nest boxes. Because they prefer to nest in trees, they are often seen roosting in trees or on logs over water and are particularly adept at roosting in precarious places. They have even been known to roost in corn stubble.

Black-bellied chicks also exhibit an odd daily routine. They lounge around in or along shallow freshwater ponds all day, fly away at dusk, giving their whistling, shrill call as they fly, and forage all night in grain fields, short grass, and especially in flooded rice paddies.

Near dawn, they return to a shallow freshwater pond where they can stand and peck at aquatic vegetation.

Their behavior earned them another title for their rarity: they are the least aquatic of all waterfowl.

For more information on birds and their habitat, check out Sharon Sorenson’s books How Birds Behave, Birds in the Yard Month by Month, and Planting Native to Attract Birds to Your Yard. Follow along with daily bird activity on Facebook at SharonSorensonBirdLady or email her at [email protected].