Northern Pintails are common and elegant ducks.
Northern Pintails are elegant, long-necked ducks with a slender profile. The tail is long and pointed, but it is much longer and more prominent on breeding males than on females and nonbreeding males. In flight, the wings are long and narrow.
Northern Pintails measure 20.1-29.9 inches (51-76 centimeters) in length, 17.6-51.1 ounces (500-1450 grams) in weight, and 34.0 inches (86.4 centimeters) in wingspan.
Breeding male Northern Pintails stand out with a gleaming white breast and a white line down their chocolate brown head and neck. Females and males that are molting (eclipse plumage) are mottled in browns and whites with an unmarked pale tan face and a dark bill. In flight, males show off a green speculum (the inner wing feathers or secondaries) and females flash a bronzy speculum.
Northern Pintails occur throughout the world in North America, Eurasia, and Africa.
Northern Pintails are long-distance migrant. They are one of the first ducks to migrate south to wintering grounds in the southern half of the United States, Mexico, and Central America.
They breed in seasonal wetlands, open areas with short vegetation, wet meadows, grasslands, and crop fields. During the nonbreeding season they use flooded and dry agricultural fields, lakes, reservoirs, estuaries, saltmarshes, freshwater and brackish wetlands, and bays. Northern Pintails also use different habitats depending on time of day.
Northern Pintails eat seeds from aquatic plants, worms, snails, crustaceans, aquatic insects, and grains. They pick at seeds and grains while walking or scoop up aquatic insects and seeds with their bills.
Males and females fly over wetlands, grasslands, and fields looking for areas with short vegetation. They nest on the ground in croplands, grasslands, wet meadows, seasonal wetlands, and shortgrass prairies often farther from water than other ducks. Northern Pintails are one of the few duck species that nest in tilled croplands.
The female makes several scrapes in the ground before she starts building the nest, ultimately choosing the last scrape made. She slowly adds grasses and down to the depression while laying eggs to form a shallow bowl approximately 7–10 inches wide and 2–4 inches deep.
Northern Pintails have one brood per year. In each clutch, there are 3-12 greenish buff eggs. The eggs measure 1.9-2.3 inches (4.9-5.8 centimeters) in length and 1.3-1.6 inches (3.3-4 centimeters) in width. Incubation period is 22-24 days. At hatching, the hatchlings are covered in down and able to leave the nest soon after hatching.
Seemingly at home on land and water, Northern Pintails waddle through fields and swim gracefully with the tail pointed upwards. They erupt in flight from the water's surface at a moment's notice, wheeling and darting through the air on their slender wings. Northern Pintails are generally social birds and rarely fight with other ducks. But when one male threatens another, they jab at their rival with their bill open and chase them with their head hanging low, just above the surface of the water. Males and females also lift their chins to greet each other and sometimes tip their chins when threatened. Pairs form on the wintering grounds, but males often mate with other females on the breeding grounds, and pairs only stay together for a single breeding season. Courting males stretch their necks up and tip their bills down while giving a whistle call. Males also preen behind their wing to expose the green speculum. Interested females follow males with head bobbing, preening, and clucking. Groups of males and females also chase each other in flight, flying high and ranging far afield. While females are still incubating, males leave their mates and begin forming flocks with other males in preparation for migration. They migrate in groups, forming long, wavy lines.
Throughout the year, male Northern Pintails give a short burst that sounds similar to a wheezy trainlike whistle. Females often make a rough stuttering quack similar to a Mallard.
Northern Pintails are common, but their populations declined by 2.4% per year between 1966 and 2015, resulting in a cumulative decline of 70% over the 49-year period according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Although the North American Breeding Bird Survey suggest a long-term decline in pintail numbers, the data used to calculate the trends may be deficient. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 4.8 million. The species rates a 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, which means it is not on the Partners in Flight Watch List and is a species of low conservation concern. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service carefully manages duck hunting and limit the number of individuals hunters can take every year based on population size. From 2012–2016, hunters took on average 521,607 Northern Pintail per year. Populations appear to fluctuate with drought, decreasing during drought years, and recovering in wetter years. Although populations increased slightly in 2017 according to Ducks Unlimited, loss of wetland habitat, cultivation of grasslands, and agricultural practices that destroy nests also affect the population. The North American Waterfowl Management Plan is working towards restoring wetlands and working with farmers to reduce nest loss and improve habitat for Northern Pintail.
- Northern Pintails start nesting as soon as the ice starts to thaw, arriving by late April in places as far north as the Northwest Territories, Canada.
- Northern Pintails migrate at night at speeds around 48 miles per hour. The longest nonstop flight recorded for a Northern Pintail was 1,800 miles.
- The oldest recorded Northern Pintail was a male, and at least 22 years, 3 months old when he was found in Saskatchewan, Canada.