Whistling duck

The whistling ducks or tree ducks are a subfamily, Dendrocygninae, of the duck, goose and swan family of birds, Anatidae. They are not true ducks. In other taxonomic schemes, they are either considered a separate family, Dendrocygnidae, or the tribe Dendrocygnini in the goose subfamily Anserinae. The subfamily has one genus, Dendrocygna, which contains eight living species, and one undescribed extinct species from Aitutaki of the Cook Islands.

Taxonomy and evolution

Whistling ducks were first described by Carl Linnaeus in the 10th edition of Systema Naturae in 1758: the black-bellied whistling duck (then Anas autumnalis) and the West Indian whistling duck (then Anas arborea).[1] In 1837, William John Swainson named the genus Dendrocygna to distinguish whistling ducks from the other waterfowl.[2] The type species was listed as the wandering whistling duck (D. arcuata), formerly named by Thomas Horsfield as Anas arcuata.[3]

Whistling duck taxonomy, including that of the entire infraorder Anseriformes, is complicated and disputed.[4] Under a traditional classification proposed by ornithologist Jean Théodore Delacour based on morphological and behavioral traits,[5][6] whistling ducks belong to the tribe Dendrocygnini under the family Anatidae and subfamily Anserinae.[6][7] Following the revisions by ornithologist Paul Johnsgard, Dendrocygnini includes the genus Thalassornis (the white-backed duck) under this system.[7][8]

In 1997, Bradley C. Livezey proposed that Dendrocygna were a separate lineage from Anserinae, placing it and its tribe in its own subfamily, Dendrocygninae. Alternatively Charles Sibley and Jon Edward Ahlquist recommended placing Dendrocygna in its own family, Dendrocygnidae, which includes the genus Thalassornis.[6][7]

Simplified Anseriformes phylogeny[9][10][11]


Anatinae (dabbling ducks)

Anserinae (swans and true geese)

Oxyurinae (stiff-tailed ducks and allies)

Dendrocygninae (whistling ducks)

Anseranatidae (magpie-geese)

Anhimidae (screamers)

Detailed Anatidae phylogeny[12]

 other Anatidae

 other Anatinae

 all Anserinae

 Oxyurinae, Nettapus, Malacorhynchus, Salvadorina

 D. arcuata 

 D. javanica 


 D. bicolor 

 D. eytoni 

 D. arborea 

 D. guttata 


 D. autumnalis 

 D. viduata 



Eight species of whistling duck are currently recognized in the genus Dendrocygna. However, Johnsgard considers the white-backed duck (Thalassornis leuconotus) from Africa and Madagascar to be distinct ninth species,[13] a view first proposed in 1960 and initially supported by behavioral similarities. Later, similarities in anatomy, duckling vocalizations, and feather proteins gave additional support.[8] Molecular analysis in 2009 also suggested that the white-backed duck was nested within the whistling duck clade.[12] In addition to the extant species, subfossil remains of an extinct, undescribed species have been found on Aitutaki of the Cook Islands.[14]

Scientific name Common name Authority Conservation status Image
D. arborea West Indian whistling duck Linnaeus, 1758


D. arcuata Wandering whistling duck Horsfield, 1824

Least concern

D. autumnalis Black-bellied whistling duck Linnaeus, 1758

Least concern

D. bicolor Fulvous whistling duck Vieillot, 1816

Least concern

D. eytoni Plumed whistling duck Eyton, 1838

Least concern

D. guttata Spotted whistling duck Schlegel, 1866

Least concern

D. javanica Lesser whistling duck Horsfield, 1821

Least concern

D. viduata White-faced whistling duck Linnaeus, 1766

Least concern


Whistling ducks are found in the tropics and subtropics. As their name implies, they have distinctive whistling calls.

The whistling ducks have long legs and necks, and are very gregarious, flying to and from night-time roosts in large flocks. Both sexes have the same plumage, and all have a hunched appearance and black underwings in flight.


Literature cited

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