The likely chances that a waterfowler will come across a rare species of duck is increasing and your chance that it may happen to you also increases each year in the Mid-South. The rare bird is the black-bellied whistling duck, one of a group of eight mostly tropical waterfowl species.
They get their name from their high-pitched vocalizations. The black-bellied whistling duck's name in Latin countries is “Pichichi,” derived from its distinctive “pee-che-che-ne” call.
It was formerly known as the black-bellied tree duck. As this name suggests, they are quite fond of perching. When not perched, they prefer shallow freshwater ponds, lakes and marshes.
Feeding often occurs nocturnally, but can at any hour. They eat a wide range of plant material, but also consume insects and aquatic invertebrates. They are predominately grazers, feeding on submerged vegetation by wading through shallow water, but they can dabble and dive.
In Mexico they are known as “pato maizqal,” or cornfield duck, because they are commonly seen feeding in recently harvested fields. In the United States, we tend to call them by the moniker “Mexican duck.”
Historically, black-bellied whistling ducks nested from the Gulf Coast of Texas and the Lower Rio Grande Valley south through Mexico and Central America. Known for wandering, some strayed into other areas of Texas and into Arizona, California and New Mexico.
Nevertheless, they started extending their range north and east in the mid-1970s into Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida and Tennessee, in part due to feeding by humans and an increasing availability of nest boxes, agricultural ponds and cultivation.
Some believe that global warming has caused much of this change, and others believe it is due to the expanding rice culture.
They are considered locally common in southwestern Arkansas and have been reported as far north as Wisconsin, Nebraska, Ohio and even Quebec, Canada.
The North American population has greatly increased since the 1950s. In the western and west-central United States, they are increasing at 2 percent or greater per year.
In 1978, a pair successfully raised a brood at Reelfoot Lake. Several were reported in 2003 in Dyer and Lake counties in northwest Tennessee.
Numerous counties in Arkansas have reported sightings, with several reports of successful nesting. Even in eastern counties of Arkansas, they are showing up in increasing numbers, such as Bald Knob Wildlife Refuge, Cache River, OK Hunting Club in Poinsett County, and Monroe, Desha, Lonoke, St. Francis and Chicot counties. In Woodruff County in 1995, 74 birds were seen near Hunter, Ark.
In Mississippi, nesting was confirmed at the Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge in 2003 and on Morgan Brake NWR in 2004.
How will you know if you just bagged one. Well, the black-bellied whistling duck actually is more closely related to geese than to ducks. They have long legs and necks, which lead to a distinct profile when flying. Although mallard-sized, they look more goose-like than duck-like when standing and walk instead of waddle.
It has been described by one early American ornithologist as “most un-duck-like.” However, like ducks, they fly in loose flocks rather than in formation.
Male and female ducks look similar. The back and crown are cinnamon brown, connected with a black stripe on the back of the neck. The face is gray with a white-eye ring. The breast is chestnut brown. The wings are black underneath and black and white above, with the white patch conspicuous in flight and at rest. The tail and belly are black; the bill and legs are striking pink.
There is no specific hunting season or protection for the black-bellied whistling duck so they should be counted as part of your limit of six.