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Wild Thing: Tree Ducks

Black-bellied whistling ducks often perch in trees and borrow other ducks' nests.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Ever seen black-bellied whistling ducks balance on a utility line? With their red-orange bills, long pink legs and white-eye rings, they make quite a comical sight as they swing nervously back and forth on their big feet. From there, they'll typically flap over to a nearby tree.

"Most unduck-like" is how Canadian author Francis H. Kortright described the species (Dendrocygna autumnalis) in 1942. Indeed, these birds – named for their black-plumed tummies and shrill twittering – resemble and behave more like geese than ducks. For instance, they're walkers, not waddlers, and pairs mate for life.

Ornithologists once labeled these birds as "tree" ducks because they're often seen perched on tree branches. They also nest in tree cavities and in manmade boxes. Females lay 13 or so eggs and sometimes deposit them in other ducks' nests. Two days after hatching, ducklings jump out of the nest and follow their parents. Mostly nocturnal, whistling ducks eat insects, seeds and plants found in shallow water or on land.

Considered to be more of a tropical waterfowl, black-bellied whistling ducks now range as far north as Dallas and beyond. "No surveys have been done, but over the past six to eight years, they've definitely been showing up in bigger numbers in Texas," says Dave Morrison, TPWD waterfowl program leader.

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