Whistler of the Caribbean

Historically, the West Indian whistling duck was widely distributed throughout most of the island nations in the Caribbean, from the Bahamas in the north as far south as Guadeloupe. Today, it is restricted to just nine countries within its former range, and numbers are declining in all but a handful of these.

It is a large, long-necked duck with an upright stance, predominantly brown in colour, but with small of black-and-white patches on its neck and flanks. As its common name suggests, one of this duck’s characteristic features is its distinctive whistling call.

Though mainly nocturnal, whistling ducks are also active at dusk and dawn. During the day, they roost in flocks, often in mangrove swamps.

West Indian whistling duck facts

  • The West Indian whistling duck’s main stronghold is Cuba, where its population is estimated at 14,000
  • Its scientific name refers to its habit of roosting and nesting in trees
  • Unusually, West Indian whistling ducks in Antigua prefer to nest on the ground, which increases their vulnerability to predation and disturbance
  • The species is known by several other names including black-billed wood-duck and Cuban tree-duck
At a glance
Dendrocygna arborea
Vulnerable

Family:

Anatidae

Order:

Anseriformes

Estimated in the wild:

20,000

Protecting the Caribbean’s remaining wetland habitat is key to the survival of the West Indian whistling duck.

Over 50%

The proportion of the West Indian whistling duck’s wetland habitat that is seriously degraded

500

The estimated population of West Indian whistling ducks left in Antigua

Conservation story

Loss of wetland habitat, driven largely by coastal development throughout the West Indies, is the principal threat to the long-term future of this whistling duck. Its feeding habits also bring it into conflict with farmers, who take retaliatory action to protect their crops.

Although the species nominally enjoys protected status, law enforcement is lax, and illegal hunting for food and sport is relatively commonplace. The West Indian whistling duck is known to be very susceptible to disturbance during the nesting season and will permanently abandon a clutch of eggs if people visit the area repeatedly.

Like many other species that are native to the West Indies, this duck is extremely vulnerable to predation by invasive species such as mongooses, racoons, feral cats and ship rats that were deliberately or accidentally introduced into the Caribbean.

Hurricanes and other natural disasters can take an additional toll on the West Indian whistling duck’s shrinking and increasingly fragmented population.

How FFI is helping to save the West Indian whistling duck

The Offshore Islands Conservation Programme, which evolved out of FFI’s hugely successful Caribbean project to rescue the critically endangered Antiguan racer from extinction, was instrumental in the creation of a new protected area covering over 3,000 hectares of Antigua’s coastline. This has helped to safeguard vital habitat for whistling ducks and other mangrove-dependent species.

West Indian whistling ducks are also among the many threatened species to have benefited directly from rat eradication and ecological restoration on Antigua’s offshore islands. The removal of invasive ship rats from Great Bird Island, once the last refuge of the critically endangered Antiguan racer snake, enabled whistling ducks to re-colonise the island and breed successfully for the first time in many years.

Raising public awareness about the bird’s threatened status and wider importance is also helping to turn around its fortunes. Today the West Indian whistling duck features prominently alongside the Antiguan racer and several other species in the national curriculum.

In 2014, the Conservation Leadership Programme – a partnership that includes FFI – funded an Antiguan-led project focusing specifically on the West Indian whistling duck. The team conducted surveys on the duck’s distribution on the offshore islands, designed a long-term monitoring programme, helped to address the threats posed by invasive species, and worked with visitors to solicit their cooperation in safeguarding the ducks and their habitat.