By John Gordon
There must have been close to 50,000 geese roosting to the north of the pond. With a light northwest wind filtering down to the hunters, they sounded like rolling thunder. Mainly snows, their high-pitched barks and low murmuring groans drowned out all sound. But the hunters, two teen-aged kids from Houston, were not after geese this morning on the Katy prairie southwest of the big city. Ducks were the target, elegant pintails and flashing teal, friendly wigeons and cartoonish shovelers, a typical Texas mixed bag.
First light was approaching quickly, the dark shapes of early fliers appeared on the horizon. A blue-winged pair darted in from the east, the rising sun framing their silhouettes on approach to pond. Rising from their hide, the boys tracked the birds and folded them almost in unison. Happily, they waded in the shallows to retrieve the day’s first birds. Then they heard a faint high-pitched whistle coming from behind them to the south. It grew louder as 10 shapes approached, their elongated bodies looking more like shorebird than a duck. “Squealers,” one of the boys whispered using the local name for black-bellied whistling ducks. Soon they would pass over in easy range, causing the boys to grip their guns a little tighter.
That hunt took place over 30 years ago in one of the few areas in the United States that black-bellies resided. Today, hunters are encountering these ducks in ever-growing numbers inside of hunting season and out. Their shrill whistling call can be heard in Tennessee and Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas, and over to Georgia and Florida among other states. They live and breed in Mexico and South America too, and a large population calls Audubon Park in metro New Orleans, Louisiana, their home. Their range is expanding northward at a rapid rate, sightings have become common in many places where people had never heard of them even five years ago.
Why? That’s a question without a definitive answer. There hasn’t been a lot of research conducted on black-bellied whistling ducks in years past but that is changing. Jared Henson is an assistant professor of biology at Christian Brothers University in Memphis. He has led a research project on black-bellies near the Mississippi River in southeast Memphis for the past two years. He believes the expansion of black-bellies is tied to their unusual behaviors relative to other duck species.
“The main reason I wanted to know more about black-bellies was their unique behavior,” said Henson. “They are cavity nesters that will utilize nest boxes and holes in trees, but they will also nest on the ground. They need taller cover in and around marsh habitat for ground nesting. I think many have headed north from traditional grounds in search of better nesting conditions.”
Dual nesting habitat preferences is far from the only thing black-bellies do that many ducks don’t. Henson rattled off a list of differences. “Number one is the sexes are not dimorphic. Much like geese, the males and females look the same. They perch in trees, on powerlines, they have even been seen on the rooftops of houses,” he explained. “They don’t like to swim, preferring to wade in the shallows or stand on whatever is available. Now they can and will swim, but they rarely do it unless they are leading young. They pair for life and both males and females will incubate eggs. They don’t use nest material inside nesting boxes, they’ll just lay them on the floor.”
Henson also said that multiple hens will lay eggs in a box and one hen will sit on them. He studied a box this past summer holding 40 eggs. They do not eat invertebrates, preferring vegetation and grain. Henson has seen them feed in areas where no other ducks can be found. “I have seen them feeding on grain barges with the pigeons here in Memphis on the Mississippi,” he said. “That is most likely why there are so many in New Orleans now, they followed the barges up the river and found the area to their liking.”
They definitely are migrators. Henson recently captured a bird banded in Louisiana that had made it‘s way north to Tennessee. Texas black-bellies are often residing in Mexico when duck season rolls around. That’s where they came from, Mexico, moving north into Texas in the early 1900s. They never ventured farther than the Rio Grande Valley until the 1960s when coastal towns such as Corpus Christi gained a population. Florida’s black-bellies also showed up in numbers in the ‘60s, the result of zoo escapees finding perfect habitat for these quirky ducks.
Imagine that, ducks escaping from a zoo, dodging predators and people to establish a wild population. “Thanks goodness they did,” said Florida resident and avid duck hunter Derek Bendell. A Minot, North Dakota, native, Bendell grew up with puddle ducks nesting in his backyard in the prairie pothole region. But these were teal and mallards and pintails among many other species he encountered there. “I never saw a black-bellied whistling duck until I moved to Ft. Myers, Florida, in 2010. I fell in love with the area and naturally I still wanted to hunt ducks,” recalled Bendell.
It’s tough hunting though, especially on the public lands Bendell frequents. And duck hunting is more popular in Florida in certain areas than most hunters know. “Head on over to the west side of Lake Okeechobee in December. It looks like a scene straight from Arkansas or Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Pickup trucks with boats and trailers everywhere,” he said.
Another aspect adding to the difficulty is many of the best areas are permit only through a draw system. All these factors lead Bendell to target black-bellies and fulvous whistling ducks. “Down here, pintails and wigeons are the coveted targets; no one pays that much attention to the whistling ducks. They are easy to overlook too. Most hunters focus on the areas with more open water where they can readily see ducks using the spot. The ducks I hunt are in the thick stuff and they aren’t showing themselves often.” It is thick, much more like a jungle than a typical duck hole.
That’s the key to locating black-bellies, finding the vegetation they prefer. Moist soil plants such as smartweed, sedge and bur marigold attract these ducks with millions of seeds. Bendell looks where others don’t while scouting for black-bellies. “I start by looking along canals and other places with heavy cover where black-bellies can stand on it. You must forget about what you know about other ducks to find black-bellies. They aren’t going to be swimming in open water and they aren’t going to be flying around waving at you.”
Another key to black-belly hunting success is understanding the weather. Ducks rarely are pushed by a physiological drive to feed in Florida. Generally, the worse the weather the poorer the hunting. “Ducks are here for the same reasons people are, the nice weather,” Bendell explained. “Why would they move if they can just wait for better conditions? They don’t.”
Bendell said hunters who want to shoot black-bellies often must “grab the bull by the horns” and go after them. He often will stalk in tight to groups and jump them. It’s hard work navigating the thick cover and making clean kills is paramount. “These birds aren’t hardy so the more pellets you can throw at them the better,” he said when asked about effective shotshells loads. “I use nothing but steel No. 6 shot. It puts them down quickly. Crippled birds are a nightmare in that marsh, they can disappear very easily. Some folks use dogs, but these ducks can maneuver through cover a lot faster. Then there are the alligators.”
Alligators? Well this is Florida after all. Bendell says he doesn’t worry about them, much. “Yeah, they will hang out around the decoys sometimes when the shooting starts looking for an easy meal. Most of the time however they will stay out of your way. The laws regarding shooting them are very specific so it’s best to leave them alone. They are just scaly obstacles in the world of the black-belly hunter.”
Calling? Decoys? Well this is not a typical puddle duck hunt where traditional tactics are the norm. They can be called easily, and can be decoyed too, but most shots are taken at passing birds. Black- bellies are very vocal, much like a snow goose. They hardly ever pass by without being heard first. Their whistling calls sound like they are laughing with several short calls coming in succession. The best way to learn their calls is to listen to sound files or the real thing and mimic their notes. No commercial decoys are available. Hunters must craft theirs through custom painting or carving.
One of the best reasons to hunt black-bellies is their incredible taste on the table. Bendell has a friend who only hunts black-bellies besides the occasional early-season teal. “I call him the ‘black-belly whisperer’ because he never wants to hunt anything else,” he said with a grin. “It’s purely for their meat and he doesn’t need to hunt to feed his family. That should tell you how good they are.”
Any good recipe for cooking ducks will work for black-bellies too but they have a bonus feature most ducks don’t, their large thighs. They are much bigger than other ducks and lack heavy tendons. Bendell likes to grill them with a twist. “I leave the legs and feet on them. It looks a little funny and it raises a few eyebrows, but those feet are handy and eliminate the need for tongs,” he said. “I also love to cook the breast meat on skewers with some purple onion, red and green bell peppers and bacon. I cube the breast meat and marinate it for a couple of hours in a fajita mix and pre-cook the bacon until it’s almost done. Put it all together and either cook it slow and low or hot and fast on the grill without overcooking. Delicious!”
Another aspect of hunting black-bellies is their value as trophies. Many hunters just want a nice mount for their collection and another memory in their waterfowling career. Pat Pitt of Olive Branch, Mississippi, has traveled the world hunting ducks and geese. He is an excellent waterfowl taxidermist with thousands of mounted birds to his credit. He is no stranger to black-bellies, harvesting his first one while hunting geese in the Texas panhandle in the early 1970s. He sees more and more of these ducks coming in for mounting as their range has expanded.
“I am working on four of them right now,” Pitt said. “They are coming in from all over the south these days. I mounted several taken in Arkansas last year. I know there are a lot of theories on why they have moved north but I think one of the reason is their territorial behavior. Adults will push the young birds out, so they often leave their home habitat in search of new ground.” Black-belly females have large clutches of 12 to 16 eggs and they nest later in the year than other species. High nesting success equals a lot of juveniles in the population to move out and populate new areas.
0Whether they are birds of opportunity or specific targets, black-bellied whistling ducks offer hunters something different to pursue outside the same old birds everyone has seen a thousand times. Once only living in a limited range, these unique ducks are showing up in marshes and lakes from as far west as Arizona all the way east to South Carolina. Not every hunter has access to them locally, so travel may be required to experience a black-belly hunt. That’s never a bad thing though, what hunter doesn’t love an excuse to find new places? Get out and get after them!