Northern Pintail

Anas acuta

(c) Howard B. Eskin
  • ANATIDAE
  • Swans, Geese, Ducks
  • Anseriformes
  • Pato golonfrino
  • Canard pilet
Introduction
Long-necked and slim, the Northern Pintail is a graceful, elegant bird. This dabbling duck can be found in much of the Northern Hemisphere, although in considerably lower numbers than in the past. These decreasing numbers are of serious concern to conservationists because other duck species that nest in the same areas have increased in response to management plans and improved weather conditions.  One of Audubon's Common Birds in Decline, the population of Northern Pintails has declined 71% since 1967.
Fun Fact

Northern Pintails form new pair bonds each winter, but during the nesting season, males will engage in energetic and acrobatic "Pursuit Flights" to fight for access to another female.

Bird Sounds
© Lang Elliot, Nature Sound Studio
Vocalization

Females quack like a Mallard; males most often make a high-pitched "wheee," like a train whistle.

Appearance Description
The drake Northern Pintail has a silvery body, accented with white on the sides and breast, and black on the tail and wing feathers. A white neck stripe and a rich chestnut head complete this slim, elegant bird. The female is well camouflaged in muted tans, grays, and browns.
Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
This species is widespread around the globe. It nests across northern Europe, Asia, and North America. Moving south in the winter, it can be found in large flocks in the southern United States, Central America, southern Europe and Asia, and central Africa.
A legend for the range map to the right can be found here.
Habitat
In summer, this species inhabits open areas near water. This includes prairies, farmland, and tundra. It feeds in shallow lakes and marshes, or on land at the water’s edge. In winter, Northern Pintails may congregate in large numbers in fresh or brackish marshes and lakes. They also use flooded farmland, and particularly enjoy rice fields.
Feeding
As a dabbling duck, this species “tips-up,” with its head and neck under water and tail in the air, to feed on creatures it finds in the mud. These aquatic creatures make up most of the duck’s spring and summer diet, as well as the diet of the ducklings. In fall and winter, Northern Pintails eat more plant material, such as grasses, seeds, and grains.
Reproduction
Several male pintails will vie for one female, leading to acrobatic aerial chases. Females build their nests in short grass or stubble on dry ground, as far as a half mile from water. Only the female incubates the 6 to 10 eggs; her mate leaves shortly after incubation begins. After 22 to 24 days, the ducklings all hatch in one day, spend a day in the nest, follow the female to water, and fledge 3 to 4 weeks later. The young are immediately able to feed themselves.
Migration
Flocks of Northern Pintails migrate north very early in the spring. The southern migration begins in late summer and may extend throughout the fall.
CBC Graph
Graph Legend
Annual Population Indices
  • 6.6 million
  • 3.6 million
  • 16 million 40 years ago
  • 71 percent since 1967
  • severe population declines
Population Status Trends
The North American Northern Pintail population was estimated to be about 6 million in the early 1970s. The recent population trend is worsening; the spring 2005 breeding population was estimated to be only 2.6 million birds, which is 38% below the long-term average. Population trend analysis for this species using data from both the Christmas Bird Count and the Breeding Bird Survey confirms that the species is in significant decline.
 
An explanation of the Annual Population Indices graph displayed to the right can be found here.
Conservation Issues
While populations of other prairie nesting ducks increased dramatically following the droughts of the late 1980s and early 2000s, pintail populations remain 38% below their long-term average and 53% below the North American Waterbird Management Plan goals. Unlike other North American ducks, the Northern Pintail has not responded to recent improvements in habitat conditions in the prairie pothole region, and we are only recently beginning to understand why. The root of the problem seems to be poor nest success rates on the prairie breeding grounds, especially in Canada. There has been continual conversion of prairie grasslands to cropland, and shifting farming practices that fail to leave some fields fallow each season. These changes have resulted in the destruction of many nests by agricultural machinery and high levels of predation. This species may have also been impacted by avian botulism in the late 1990s.
 
In addition to protecting the quality and quantity of North American wetlands, modifications in agricultural practices and cropland development could help this species. The pintail is one of the earliest nesters, and as grassland is destroyed, it nests in stubble fields. Virtually all of these nests are lost to agricultural activities each spring. Efforts to decrease spring tillage—like the planting of fall crops or the conversion of these preferred nesting areas to hay fields—would save many nests and provide habitat less vulnerable to predators. Hunting restrictions and limits are also needed to help this species return to healthy population levels.
What You Can Do
  • Protect the Boreal Forest
    Promote conservation of the Canadian boreal forest by supporting the Boreal Songbird Initiative that works to save Canadian boreal habitat for all birds, specifically by fighting inappropriate logging, mining, and drilling, and by promoting the designation of protected areas.

  • Preserve Farmlands
    Promote strong conservation provisions in the federal farm bill, especially the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays farmers to keep marginal farmlands idle and supports millions of acres of good bird habitat. Contact your county’s office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) or Farm Service Agency (FSA) to find out how to increase the number of acres devoted to helping birds dependent on farmlands.

  • Conserve Wetlands
    Support wetlands conservation programs such as the Clean Water Act, North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA), and Farm Bill conservation programs such as the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), and “swampbuster” (the rule that restricts wetlands from being converted to agriculture). Encourage governments at all levels to enact and enforce wetlands protection and water quality laws and regulations.

  • Help Halt Global Warming
    Back strong federal, state, and local legislation to cap greenhouse emissions, and spur alternative energy sources. Conserve energy at home and at work (http://conservation.audubon.org/programs/birds-climate-change).
More Information
Natural History References
Austin, J. E., and M. R. Miller. 1995. Northern Pintail (Anas acuta). In The Birds of North America, No. 163 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C.
 
Ducks Unlimited: http://www.ducks.org/conservation/icp/Part3/NorthernPintailPopulation.html
 
Kaufman, Kenn. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
Conservation Status References
Austin, J. E., and M. R. Miller. 1995. Northern Pintail (Anas acuta). In The Birds of North America, No. 163 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C.
 
Ducks Unlimited: http://www.ducks.org/conservation/icp/Part3/NorthernPintailPopulation.html
 
Kaufman, Kenn. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.