Father’s Day on Olney Pond

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis) form life-long pair bonds, and this couple has their wings full with fourteen young ones to keep watch over.

The ducklings had roamed away from their parents as they fed, but when it was time to move toward the shelter of the grasses and reeds, the mother and father lined them up like a group of kindergartners on a field trip. With such attentive parents and such a nice pond to live in, more than a few of these babies probably will survive.


Comments always are welcome.

57 thoughts on “Father’s Day on Olney Pond

    1. I don’t know about number sense, but some species, like the mallards, clearly have a sense of when one has left the group. There’s a call that female mallards use to find an errant baby; it differs from other quacks and calls, and if the baby doesn’t respond, it gets increasingly loud. I suspect it’s a duck version of, “I told you to come here! Now!” Of course, those mothers sometimes are helped out by the frantic calling of a baby who’s wandered off and suddenly found itself alone. It’s possible to imitate the mother’s call and lead an errant baby back to the group. (Yes, I have experience.)

  1. The head-stripes make them look racy little ducklings, I suppose when not being shepherded by their parents that they whizz all over the place at top-speed?

    1. I’ve not seen the young whizzing around, but I suppose they do; they’re certainly capable of it. They hatch fully feathered, and those hatched in nest boxes jump down after only one or two days, independent and ready to go. They forage for their own food from the beginning, and probably do a little general exploring, too.

  2. I saw whistling ducks for the first time yesterday. They rested in the willow for a bit before continuing east. Was a sight to behold. I’d seen photos of them on Ellen’s blog the day before. Life is a wonder.

    1. They’re one of my favorites: the clowns of the bird world. A fellow down in Surfside began throwing out a little corn for them, and has a hundred or so show up in his backyard now. He actually attracted a mix; there’s a Fulvous Whistling Duck that sometimes mixes in with these, but I don’t remember seeing one of those.

        1. This page has some information about the similarities and differences between the black-bellied whistling ducks and the fulvous. They’re really quite similar in size and behavior, although their colors are somewhat different, and the feed differently. Sometimes you can find both species together.

      1. Wow. These birds are all over Katy. They’ve been a part of the landscape for decades. How could I have forgotten them? The darlings have even held up traffic on occasion. LOL. I’ve no idea why it took so long to click.

  3. Baby ducklings and goslings do a thing called “imprinting.” They are born with a very strong instinct to follow the first thing they encounter after hatching. In the normal course of affairs, this would be their mother. The mother leads and the babies follow, and the dad “rides sweep” as we say here in ranching country, to sweep up the stragglers. It’s up to the babies to rally round their mom and keep close to her. Any who can’t keep up, or who are too prone to wandering usually get eliminated from the gene pool, one way or another. These ducklings do have some spiffy threads. I expect the stripes break up their outline in the grass and reeds, and help camouflage them. I also suspect the adult ducks have a particular call that means, “Fall in!”

    1. I’m sure you’re right about that special call that gathers the babies. I know the mallard mothers have one; I can get a baby mallard to come to me by imitating it. In the series of photos I took, there are some with the ducklings gathered around the mama so tightly you couldn’t count them; they gathered and dispersed several times, and I suspect it must have been a result of a perceived threat. Once they were sure all was well, they’d scatter out again.

    1. I don’t care which species I come across, I love ducklings and goslings. They’re cute, and funny, and infinitely curious. It’s a great combination.

  4. They form a delightful family and I wish them well. It’s doubtful that all will survive but the ducklings have two attentive parents to give them a fighting chance.

    1. I once witnessed seventeen mallard ducklings growing to maturity, but they were raised in and near a local marina where there was a little island for them to shelter in and perhaps too much activity for the usual predators. Ducklings do make tempting snacks for gar fish, alligators, and some of our gull species, so it’s rare for all of them to survive. In the grand scheme of things, that’s probably good, or we’d be up to our hips in ducks.

    1. Even if all of them don’t make it, some of them will — and next year, this loving couple will be grand-ducks! I’m almost certain generational ties don’t endure past ducklings and their parents, but on the other hand — I’ve had bluejays bring youngsters to my feeders for several years. They always arrive at nearly the same time, and if the feeders aren’t out, they squawk. Perhaps there is a memory that endures, as there is for birds that build their nests in the same spots every year.

  5. In answer to Steve’s comment, there are certainly a number of bird species who can count, certainly to at least 5 or 6, although I don’t know how much more. Perhaps it depends on the species.

    1. I doubt they have the ability to count as we do, but there’s no question that they can account for every member of their brood. When one goes missing — at least with the mallards — they don’t rest until they’ve found it. And if it’s met a sad fate, you can tell it affects them. It takes a while for them to stop searching.

      1. Quite a few years ago I read an article on an experiment to see whether birds could actually count. I don’t remember the full details, but there were lots of photos included showing the birds learning to access their food only in containers with the correct number of bright red dots on the lid. The point was that once the birds had got the idea that a particular *pattern* of (e.g.) 6 dots indicated the food, the experimenters then broke up the patterns so the correct lid still had 6 dots, but in a different pattern.

        The birds had no problem identifying the correct one, indicating they could count the dots. How they did it? Was it abstract thought? I dunno. They did it, though.

        1. I’m still sceptical about them ‘counting,’ although I’d be willing to go with pattern recognition even with the changes. Whatever the study actually showed, one thing’s clear: ‘bird brain’ never should be used as an insult!

          1. And thinking further on the subject, changing the pattern would require the bird to recognise the number of dots in the new pattern, which would involve counting in some form or another, to distinguish it from other patterns with a different number of dots.

    1. They look rather like our old pull toys, don’t they? I had one duck that quacked when I pulled it along, but I never had anything like this string of babies!

    2. That line does make for a lovely image, a sweet sight! I wish then all good luck and hope lots of them get to have their own babies in future.

  6. Whenever I see tree ducks I’m reminded of a biological psychologist I once worked with. His main professional work was in neuropsychology but he became fascinated by Black-bellied Whistling Ducks on a hunting trip to South Texas. His annual reports mystified the higher levels of the administration when he listed his projects studying the ducks and the students those projects supported, but they couldn’t argue with success.

    1. They’re especially fun as teenagers. I have a couple of photos of at least a dozen of them atop a pavilion at Brazoria: fighting, preening, testing their wings, and so on. It’s not unlike what goes on at the local human watering holes on a weekend.

    1. The largest human family I’ve known had nine children, and in that case things were arranged much as they were in our one-room school houses; the older children looked after the younger. Of course, when everyone hatches at the same time, that sort of accomodation isn’t possible!

      1. My father’s family had 11 children, and they definitely helped take care of each other, even if they were only a bit older. You’re right…that doesn’t work when they’re all the same age!!!

  7. HaHa, they do look like a day care center on a field trip for the day! Wonderful how these parents instinctively know how to care for their brood. Of course, there aren’t any Baby Duck Books by Dr. Spock or any other guru making the rounds, are there?

    1. I wish that book did exist. I think it would make wonderful reading. The good news is that the ducks don’t seem to need a book. I don’t know why I think so, but I suspect this couple has had a couple of clutches already. They seemed to divide their responsibilities pretty easily, and confidently!

    1. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before. Maybe Father’s Day brought it to mind. My dad collected the so-called ‘duck stamps’ — the federal stamps required for hunting. They’re beautiful just as art, and I wondered if the whistling ducks ever had been on a stamp. In fact, they’re on this 2020-2021 stamp. If my own dad still was around, it would have made a great gift for him.

      1. Thanks for letting me know about the stamp, Linda. It is a gorgeous as the bird it portrays. I will check at the PO to see if it’s still available, but would be surprised if that were the case.

    1. They’ve got Daisy and Donald beat! I couldn’t remember their story, or how many young ‘uns were around their pond, so I looked it up. I didn’t know most of this!

      “Donald Duck is the son of Quackmore Duck and Hortense McDuck. Donald’s mother Hortense is the sister of Scrooge McDuck, making Scrooge Donald’s uncle. Donald has a sister Della (sometimes called Dumbella) who married an unnamed Duck and had three sons, Donald’s identical triplet nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie.”

  8. Quite a nice family unit. I’ve seen some ducks tend the young of others creating quite a large entourage. But whistling ducks can lay as many as 18 eggs so Mama must really be glad once that is over.

    1. At least the whistling duck mamas have the advantage of attentive spouses. Both the male and female care for the young ones. In this case, that would be a very good thing. What’s really amusing is coming across a group of whistling duck teenagers. They’re a rambunctious lot!

    1. I may or may not see the group again, although I have noticed that certain birds at the refuge tend to stay in favored areas. It’s hard to say how many will survive, but I did know a mallard mother who successfully raised seventeen to adulthood, so it’s possible.

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