Common Names: pintail, sprig, sprigtail, spike, spiketail
This elegant duck with its trim form and swift flight, has been dubbed ‘the greyhound of the air’. Pintails are one of the first migrants in the fall and one of the first ducks to arrive on the breeding grounds in the spring.
Pintails are a medium sized dabbling duck. They are distinguished from other dabbling ducks by their slim profile, elegant neck and pointed tail.
Drakes have a chocolate brown head and white neck and under-parts. The long, central tail feathers are black while the others are grey with a white margin. Speculum is iridescent green or green-black.
Hens can be identified from other dabbling hens by their slender body, pointed tail, mottled dull brown or bronze speculum and mottled to spotted dark grey to black bill. Upper body feathers are dark brown while the lower body feathers are a lighter, spotted buff or grey. Except in size female pintails closely resemble female blue-winged teal.
In North America, the core nesting habitat for pintails is found in Alaska, the prairie pothole region and the northern great plains. Pintails winter along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts from south-east Alaska and south-east Massachusetts south and from interior southern USA down to Central America, central Yucatan Peninsula, north-west Costa Rica as well as in Bermuda and Cuba.
Despite their wide geographic range, pintails generally choose to nest in open country that has shallow wetlands and low vegetation. During the winter, pintails favor shallow inland freshwater and intertidal habitats. They will use flooded agricultural land, especially corn, rice, wheat, soybeans and pastures.
Pintails are omnivorous, eating both plant and animal matter. Main foods eaten include grain, moist-soil and aquatic plant seeds, pond seeks, aquatic insects, crustaceans and snails. Hens eat more animal food during the pre-laying and laying periods. Ducklings primarily eat insect larvae, snails and crustacea the first few days after hatching.
Pair formation for pintails takes place in the fall and early winter and is usually finished before they reach the nesting grounds in the spring. New pairs are formed every year, but are very promiscuous on the breeding grounds. One of the first ducks to nest in North America, they usually start soon after ice is gone in northern areas.
Hens scrape out a nest bowl 2 – 5 days before the first egg is laid by dropping on their breast and pivoting in a circle while scrapping with their feet. Actual nest construction is an ongoing process, with layers of vegetation and down added throughout laying. Completed nests are generally flush with, or below ground level.
A total of 3 – 12 eggs are laid (average of 7 – 9), with one egg laid each day in the early morning. Eggs are incubated for 22 – 24 days. Hens start incubating once the last egg is laid. During incubation they will take a long break in the early morning and one in late evening.
All the eggs normally hatch within 24 hours of each other. Hens brood the ducklings until they are dry and then lead them to water. Ducklings are able to feed themselves as soon as they are hatched.
Conservation and Management
Pintails are not endangered, but their population is well below long-term averages, as well as the desired level set by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. Though the 1990’s were wet and a banner year for other duck species, pintails did not respond as expected to the water. Waterfowl biologists continue to work to understand what factors are causing the depression in pintail populations.
Sources of Information
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.
Bellrose, F.C. 1976. Ducks, geese and swans of North America, 2nd edition. Stackpole Books, Pennsylvania.
Johnsgard, P.A. 1978. Ducks, geese, and swans of the world. University of Nebraska Press, Nebraska.