A pair of fulvous whistling ducks making their northward migration trek
(Submitted Photo/Courtesy of John K. Flores)

LDWF trying to learn more about fulvous whistling ducks

For the past four years, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries North American Waterfowl Management Plan Coordinator Paul Link has been trying to learn more about fulvous whistling ducks and their habit in Louisiana.
Fulvous whistling ducks happen to be a beautiful medium size species of duck whose feather colors are a combination of buff and rusty-colored browns, with traces of golden and white highlights with streaks of black. It is one of two whistling ducks that spend time in the state. The other being the black-bellied whistling duck.
According to Link, not much is known about fulvous ducks. The biologist says over the course of 40 years, only a couple hundred have been banded. What’s more, there are no vital rate estimates on them such as population estimates, survival estimates and mortality.
“We think these birds are coming north in the summer to nest here during the rice growing season, and they disperse back south during the hunting season,” Link said. “They’re common in South America as well, but it’s a species even more poorly understood there.”
Though both the fulvous and black-bellied are whistling ducks that spend parts or all of their lifecycles in Louisiana, they greatly differ in their habits and how they use the landscape they share. In describing them, Link says they can’t be more polar opposites.
“Fulvous are diurnal,” Link said. “They do most of their activities during the day and roost at night. Black-bellies pretty much are loafing around, resting and sleeping during the day and get very active at night. Black-bellies are primarily cavity nesters, though not obligate cavity nesters, they nest off the ground, where fulvous never nest in cavities or off the ground. Fulvous are like upland nesting ducks and are often found in rice field stubble or along levees.”
Unlike wood ducks, where harvest rates and direct recovery rates are in the teens, where out of every 100 birds banded, you’re going to get a double-digit number of bands reported, fulvous haven’t come close.
Link says the department started with a goal of banding 500 fulvous a year. However, with few band recoveries or reported encounters, the process of determining vital rates is a slow and arduous effort.
“The first year we banded a little over 600 fulvous, and I had two encounters the entire calendar year after that,” Link said. “One of those recoveries was by a state trooper who happened to be a duck hunter who found the duck on the side of the road and reported the encounter.”
During the 2018-2019 waterfowl season, Link says he did get some reports from birds harvested, one while he was swabbing ducks for avian influenza at Oak Grove Hunting Club.
Link is convinced banding isn’t going to be the best way to get vital rates of fulvous whistling ducks because they don’t seem to be susceptible to hunting harvest. He suspects the birds are going to places south of southwest Louisiana’s rice field country to where they’re not harvested or the hunting pressure is far less and/or reporting rates are very low.
In 2018, Link’s team placed transmitters on some of the fulvous ducks he banded. However, because the materials they used to attach the units to the fulvous ducks was made for a woodcock project the department previously was involved in, and they failed.
“We had a combination of UV breakdown on the harness material, and the birds chewing on them,” Link said. “Unfortunately, we put five transmitters out, and the birds actually started moving back south before we lost them.”
Fulvous whistling ducks begin to arrive just after the peak of the blue-winged teal’s migration into the state from south of the border in early April. Link says they build and build and usually by the second week of May, they’ve completely dispersed into their family units where pairs start branching out.
“It really seems like their migration coincides with the rice seeding,” Link said. “They’re right on the heels of the rice coming up, and as soon as the rice germinates and the farmers start putting water on the fields, that’s their cue to nest. They know that that rice stubble is going to provide cover that their brood needs to survive, and there’s super abundant food underneath it. There’s lots of micro-inverts and all kinds of bugs and seeds. So, that’s kind of what they are coming here for. This is their prairie pothole region. This is their nesting grounds.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Flores is The Daily Review’s Outdoor Writer.

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