Scientific Name: Anas acuta
Description: The pintail, also known as the northern pintail, can be recognized by its long, thin neck and slim body. It is a fast and graceful flier. When in its breeding plumage the male has a brown head, black bill, white neck and chest with a thin white line running up the back of the neck, gray sides and legs, and distinctive long, black central tail feathers. During the rest of the year the plumage is brownish overall. The female has a tan head with a whitish chin, a black bill, a tan breast, a white belly and a mottled brown and tan back and rump.
Size: Pintails are medium sized ducks. The male averages between 25-29 inches in length and the female between 21-23 inches. They have a wingspan of about three feet.
Diet: The pintail is a dabbling duck, which means that it feeds mainly on the surface in shallow waters, tipping headfirst to reach leaves and seeds of aquatic plants. It feeds mostly in the evening and at night. It also eats seeds, leaves and roots of terrestrial plants, as well as grain from farm fields. They eat a small amount of insects, worms, snails, crawfish, minnows and other small animals.
Predation: Because they nest earlier than most ducks, they may suffer more from nest predation. Predators include crows, gulls, coyotes, foxes, skunks, raccoons, magpies and badgers. Coyotes and bobcats prey upon adults.
Typical Lifespan: Pintails can live as long as 22 years in the wild.
Habitat: In general, the breeding habitat for the pintail is prairie—open country near lakes, rivers and wetlands dominated by low vegetation and small shallow water bodies, such as the Prairie Pothole region of the midwestern U.S. It often nests in farmland habitats. It winters in inland and coastal wetlands and marshes, where it prefers open, shallow waters.
Range: During the summer breeding season it ranges from Alaska through Canada and into the Great Plains. During the winter it can be found from southern Alaska south to northern New Mexico, east to Missouri and the Ohio Valley and along the Atlantic from Massachusetts through the southern U.S.
Life History and Reproduction: Pintails are one of the earliest nesting ducks in North America. They form pairs during the winter and spring migration. Pairs begin breeding early in the spring, sometimes before the ice has melted. Courtship involves vigorous gestures of the head and erratic paired flights. The male calls with a repeated whistle. The nest, made of grass and lined with down, is built in a hollow on dry ground generally concealed by vegetation and not necessarily close to water. The female generally lays between 6-12 greenish-buff eggs. Incubation takes from 22 to 23 days and the ducklings fledge within 6 to 7 weeks.
Communication: The male has a tooting two-toned whistle. The female makes a nasal quacking.
Fun Fact: Female pintails have been known to protect their nests by distracting the potential predator. They pretend to be injured and lead the potential predator away from the nest.
Conservation Status: Pintails are one of the most numerous species of ducks worldwide. In the United States they are common but declining in numbers. Over the past forty years populations have dropped from over 10 million to 3 million, which may be due to loss of prairie habitat and predation. Where they nest in farm fields, pintail are also vulnerable to having their nests destroyed by farming operations.
All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Brinkley, Edward S. National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to the Birds of North America. New York: Sterling. 2007.
Chesapeake Bay Program
NatureServe Explorer: An Online Encyclopedia of Life
NatureWorks, New Hampshire Public Television
Pintail Trax, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
U.S. Forest Service, Fire Effects Information System