Heart of America Game
Breeders' Association

Whistling Ducks

By Terry Smith, from the Heartland News, October 2000.

Whistling Ducks, which are sometimes referred to as Tree Ducks, are an interesting tribe of waterfowl. Eight species are included in the tribe Dedrocygnini - Spotted Whistling Duck native to the equatorial South Pacific from the Philippines to New Guinea; Plumed or Eyton's Whistling Duck native to Australia and near-by islands; Fulvous Whistling Duck native to the southern United States, Central & South America, Africa and Asia; Wandering Whistling Duck native to Indonesia and the Philippines; Lesser or Indian Whistling Duck, also called the Javan Whistling Duck native to India, Sri Lanka and other areas of south-east Asia; White-faced Whistling Duck native to South America and Africa; Cuban or Black-billed Whistling Duck native to Cuba, Puerto Rico and the West Indies; Black-bellied or Red-billed Whistling Duck native to Central and South America. Fulvous, White-faced and Red-billed Whistling Ducks are often found in waterfowl collections while the Spotted Whistling Duck is not commonly found in waterfowl collections.

All Whistling Ducks share a number of characteristics. All are tropical birds with long legs which scientists feel was an adaptation for life in the trees. The various species of Whistling Ducks are monomorphic, a term used to describe birds when the males and females have identical plumage. The female is often larger in size. Both the males and females share in the incubation of the eggs and both sexes will aggressively defend their nests. Clutches are often large and "dump nesting" or the tendency for several females to lay eggs in the same nest is not uncommon. The downy young, are heavily marked and have a light stripe below the eyes extending to the nape. In captivity it is not uncommon for one female to bond with two males or a male to form a bond with two females. Although some species are more vocal than other species, all Whistling Ducks have characteristic multisyllabic calls which are emitted by both sexes. Females generally have a lower wounding call, however.

Whistling Ducks are very social. Except during the breeding season, they are found in huge flocks in the wild. Most species can be kept in groups provided there is enough pen space and cover to allow pairs to establish their indvidual territories and nest sites. In fact, some breeders feel that social interaction is the key to having a good breeding flock and that the breeding success is proportional to the number of birds kept within the aviary.

In the wild, most Whistling Ducks are either cavity nesters or nest on the ground in reeds and tall grasses. In captivity, hens will lay in thick grass, in cavity nests, in two-section ground nest boxes or a common vertical nest box with or without some cover. In most nests, there is an absence of down, but the birds bring in a sizeable amount of leaves, straw, etc. to use as nesting material.

When the breeding environment is to their liking, some species of Whistling Ducks can be very productive. Hens of some species such as the White-faced and the Fulvous can lay as many as six clutches each having ten or more eggs. When one has several pairs or trios of the same species which are kept within the same aviary, fertility can be high and a great many young can be raised. The mortality in Eyton's Whistling Ducks, however, can run as high as 30% during the first week. Inbreeding and the need for the importation of new stock is usually blamed for the duckling deaths. Whistling Duck hens normally lay between the late afternoon and early evening. Unlike other waterfowl, both the male and female will set on the eggs. Incubation for most species averages 28 days.

It is best to keep the young of the various species of Whistling Ducks in separate brooders and grow-off pens apart from other species of ducks because they seem to go through a stage where they can be "intent-to-do-damage" on other ducklings. The young can be artificially raised on starter mash with the addition of duckweed. Some breeders supplement this diet with finely ground catfish or trout pellets or dog food. Giving the young a vitamin supplement until they are fully fledged in late summer or early fall, helps keep the young healthy and in good feather. Lots of fresh drinking water must be provided for the ducklings, they need an enormous amount of water when eating. The young Whistling Ducks are capable of flight when they are about nine weeks old, unless they are pinioned when they are few days old.

Most Whistling Ducks are quite tame and can be kept with other species of ducks in a large aviary. During the breeding season, their temperament changes and they can become aggressive - usually towards other species of Whistling Ducks. Both sexes defend the nest and protect the young by making hissing and whistling sounds, by spreading the wings and by charging the intruder. A keeper soon learns the distance they must keep from the nest and the ducklings. They make good parents and keep their young in a tight group whenever they are swimming or walking so they can protect them. White-faced Whistling Ducks have even been known to stamp the ground with their feet to ward off those encroaching on their territory.

Because they are a tropical species, they will need some protection during the winter months in the northern areas of the United States. If one keeps the ponds open so birds can swim during a cold spell, there is less chance of frozen feet. Giving the birds fresh dry straw will also help to keep the birds warm. Of the species, the Eyton's and Javan Whistling Ducks are the least hardy.

If you are looking for a species to add to your waterfowl collection, consider the Whistling Ducks. Not only are they attractive ducks, but they are interesting to observe.

white-faced whistling duck, photo by Dan Cowell

October 2000 The Heartland News, Terry Smith