Skip to Content

Northern Pintail

These ducks are easy to identify by their unique tails and love for marshes.

With its long tail and long neck accentuated by a slim, vertical white stripe, the male Northern Pintail’s appearance is often described as elegant. Northern Pintails are highly migratory, and move south early in the fall. They migrate at night at fairly low altitude, and fly at up to 65 miles per hour.

Nests of Northern Pintails are sometimes parasitized by other species of ducks or by Ring-necked Pheasants. Such nests hatch fewer eggs than unparasitized nests. Pintails can live a long time. The record age for a wild bird is over 21 years.


Description of the Northern Pintail


The Northern Pintail is a dabbling duck about the size of a Mallard but more slender and elegant.

Males are mostly gray, with a brown head and a white breast with a narrow white stripe extending up each side of the neck. They also have a long, pointed, black tail.    Length: 20-25 in.  Wingspan: 34 in.

Northern Pintail

Photograph © Sam Crowe.


Females are mostly brownish, with a dark gray bill and mostly unmarked brown head.

Seasonal change in appearance

Males in nonbreeding plumage are much paler.


The immature Northern Pintail is similar to the adult female.


Northern Pintail inhabit ponds, lakes, and marshes, as well as salt bays.


Northern Pintails primarily eat seeds and insects, depending on the time of year.

Northern Pintail

Photograph © Greg Lavaty.


Northern Pintails forage by tilting head-first into the water to probe mud.


Northern Pintail occur throughout much of the U.S. and Canada, breeding from the central U.S. north, and wintering across a broad swath of the central and southern U.S., as well as the Pacific states and provinces and the Atlantic Coast. While it is one of the most abundant of waterfowl species in North America, its populations does go up and down rather dramatically, primarily based on breeding success, which in turn is influenced by water conditions in its Prairie Pothole breeding range.

Fun Facts

The Northern Pintail also occurs in Europe and Asia, and is one of the most numerous of duck species in the world.

Courtship in Northern Pintails can be very aggressive, with several males doggedly chasing one female in long flights.


Female Northern Pintails give a “quack” similar to female Mallards.  Males have a variety of calls used during courtship.


Similar Species

  • Females resemble Mallards, but lack the bold stripes on the head.


The Northern Pintail nest is a shallow depression lined with grasses, leaves, and down, and situated on land but relatively near water.

Number: Usually lay 6-10 eggs.
Color: Olive.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 21-25 days and leave the nest almost immediately, but are not fledged until about 6-7 weeks of age.


Bent Life History of the Northern Pintail

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Northern Pintail – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.



Spring: Northward, ever northward, clearly indicated on the distant sky, points the long slim figure of the pintail, in the vanguard of the spring migration, wending its way toward remote and still frozen shores. Vying with the mallard to be the first of the surface- feeding ducks to push northward on the heels of retreating winter, this hardy pioneer extends its migration to the Arctic coast of the continent and occupies the widest breeding range of any North American duck, throughout most of which it is universally abundant and well known.

Prof. George E. Beyer (1906) says that, in Louisiana, “winter visitant individuals, as with similar individuals of the mallard, move northward very early, probably never later than the middle of January,” whereas the spring transients in that State “are the latest of all the ducks except the teals and the shoveller.” This accounts for the two distinct flights of pintails with which gunners are familiar. Dr. F. Henry Yorke (1899) recognizes three distinct flights; he says:

The spring migration above the frost line commences with the first breaking up of winter; the ducks follow the open pools of water to be found in sloughs, lakes, and rivers, and with the yellow-leg mallard are the first of the nondivers to start for their northern nesting grounds. They arrive in three distinct issues, the first leaving, in bulk, at least, before the second arrives; these stay about a week before they proceed northward. An absence of pintails, for three or four days, generally follows before the third issue put in an appearance, which stay a week or 10 days, according to the weather, then travel northward, breeding chiefly south of the Canadian line.

Mr. Edmonde S. Currier (1902) says of its arrival in Iowa:

If the great break-up of the ice comes late in the season,]as the]first week in March, which often happens after a severe winter, we find the eager sprigtails (Defile aeufo), and the first flight of mallards coming up, and then there is a bird life worth seeing. Although the number of ducks that pass here is rapidly falling off, still thousands are left.

The first flight of pintails is, with us, the greatest, and they always appear while the ice is running. Several days before the ice gives way an occasional flock will come up and circle around over the frozen river as if taking observations, and then diEappear to the south. If a rain comes before the ice goes out, and forms pools in the bottom-land corn fields, they will settle in these until the rivers open, or a cold wave strikes us.

The pintail reaches its breeding grounds in northern Alaska early in May and sometimes before the end of April, while winter condi- tions are still prevailing. Dr. E. W. Nelson (1887) says:

One, spring a small party was found about a small spring bole in the ice on the seashore the first of May, while a foot of snow still covered the ground and the tem- perature ranged only a few degrees above zero. As snow and ice disappear they become more and more numerous, until they are found about the border of almost every pool on the broad fiats from the mouth of the Kuskoquim River north to the coast of Kotzebue Sound.

Courtship: The courtship display of the shy pintail is not often seen, for even on their remote northern breeding grounds the males are ever alert and are not easily approached. The performance resembles that of the teals, where several drakes may be seen crowd- ing their attention on a single duck, each standing erect on the water proudly displaying his snowy breast, with his long neck doubled in graceful curves until his bill rested upon his swelling chest and with his long tail pointed upwards; thus he displays his charms and in soft mewing notes he woos his apparently indifferent lady love until she expresses her approval with an occasional low quack.

A more striking form of courtship, and one more often seen, is the marvelous nuptial flight, which Doctor Nelson (1887) has so well described as follows:

Once, on May 17, while sitting overlooking a series of small ponds, a pair of pin. tails arose and started off, the male in full chase after the female. Back and forth they passed at a marvelously swift rate of speed, with frequent quick turns and evolu- tions. At one moment they were almost out of view high overhead and the next saw them skimming along the ground in an involved course very difficult to follow with the eye. Ere long a second male joined in the chase, then a third, and so on until six males vied with each other in the pursuit. The original pursuer appeared to be the only one capable of keeping ~lose to the coy female, and owing to her dextrous turns and curves he was able to draw near only at intervals. Whenever he did suc- ceed he always passed under the female, and kept so close to her that their wings clattered together with a noise like a watchman’s rattle, and audible a long distance. This chase lasted half an hour, and after five of the pursuers had dropped off one by one the pair remaining (and I think the male was the same that originated the pur- suit) settled in one of the ponds.

Nesting: Mr. F. Seymour Hersey says in his notes on this species in northern Alaska:

There is probably no place within the breeding range of this widely distributed duck where it is more abundant than on the stretch of tundra bordering the Bering Sea coast of western Alaska. Almost every little tundra pond will contain a few birds: perhaps a pair or a female and two or three males: and parties of two to five or six arc constantly flying from one pond to another.

The pintail very often makes its nest farther from water than any other of the northern breeding ducks, although the greater number nest near the shores of ponds. Before the set is complete, the eggs are covered with down, intermingled with leaves, sticks, dead grass, and mosses, and the female spends the day at a considerable dis- tance from the nest. Incubation begins only when the set is complete. Early in June, 1914, while walking over the tundra some miles back from St. Michael I noticed a few pieces of down clinging to the base of some dwarf willow bushes. It aroused my suspicions and searching among the accumulated dead leaves and morn at the roots of the bush I soon disclosed an incomplete set of pintail’s eggs. They were thoroughly concealed and had it not been for the few telltale bits of down would have remained undiscovered. The female later completed this set, and on June 10 the nest held nine eges. This nest was at least a half mile from the nearest water. At the mouth of the Yukon on June 17, 1914, two nests were found in the center of anme clomps of willows in a marsh. The bushes were growing in a few inches o~ water through which a heavy zrowth of coarse grass protruded. About the base of the willows the dead grass of pr~vious years was matted and in this dead grass the nests were made. This was the wettest situation that I ever knew this spccics to select in the north.

As might be expected of an early migrant, the pintail is one of the earliest breeders; in North Dakota it begins to lay by the 1st of May or earlier and we found that many of the broods were hatched by the first week in June. The nest is placed almost anywhere on dry ground, sometimes near the edge of a slough or pond, sometimes on an island in a lake, but more often on the prairie and sometimes a half a mile or more from the nearest water; it is generally poorly concealed and is often in plain sight. Once, while crossing a tract of burned prairie, I saw a dark object fully half a mile away, which on closer inspection proved to be a pintail sitting on a nest full of half roasted eggs; this was a beautiful illustration of parental de- votion and showed that the bird was not dependent on concealment. A deep hollow is scooped out in the ground, which is sparingly lined with bits of straw and stubble, and a scanty lining of down is increased in quantity as incubation advances.

My North Dakota notes describe four nests of this species. The first nest, found on May 31, 1901, was concealed in rather tall prai- rie grass on the highest part of a small island in one of the larger lakes. On June 15 we found another nest in an open situation among rather sparse but tall prairie grass, which was in plain sight, the eggs being beautifully concealed by a thick covering of down. Another nest was shown to us by some farmers who were plowing up an extensive tract of prairie and had flushed the bird as they passed within a few feet of the nest; they left a narrow strip con- taining the nest unplowed, but something destroyed the eggs a few days afterwards; this nest was fully half a mile from the nearest water. The fourth nest was on the cdge of a cultivated wheat field, near the crest of a steep embankment sloping down into a large slough; the nest was a deep hollow in the bottom of a furrow, 7 inches wide by 4 deep lined with bits of straw and weed stubble, with a moderate supply of down surrounding the eggs; it was very poorly concealed by the scanty growth of weeds around it; the eight eggs, which it contained on June 10, proved to be heavily incubated.

In Saskatchewan, in 1905 and 1906, we recorded 11 nests of pin- tails, 8 of which were found on one small island on one day, where this species was breeding with large numbers of gadxvalls, blue-winged and green-winged teals, shovellers, mallards, baldpates, and lesser scaup ducks. One pintail’s nest was prettily located under a wild rosebush among the sand hills near Crane Lake, 1 mile from the nearest creek and 2 miles from the lake.

Mr. Robert B. Rockwell (1911) found two nests of this species, in the Barr Lake region of Colorado, in decidedly exposed situations, which he describes as follows:

The first nest, found May 11, 1907, was probably the most unusually located nest of the pintail on record. It was just a trifle less than 18 feet from the rails of the main line of the Burlington route, over which a dozen or more heavy trains thun- dered every day, and well within the railroad right of way, where section hands and pedestrians passed back and forth continually. The mother bird had found a cavity in the ground, about 8 inches in diameter and 8 inches deep, and had lined it with grass; and the two fresh eggs which it contained on this date were deposited without any downy lining whatever. The female flushed as we passed along the track about 20 feet distant, thus attracting our attention. A week later (on the 18th) the nest was fairly well lined with down and contained nine eggs, one egg having apparently been deposited each day. On May 24 the nest contained 1] eggs and the parent was much tamer than on the two preceding visits, allowing us to approach to within 15 feet of her, and alighting within 20 yards of us upon being flushed.

Another peculiar nest was found May 30, 1908, containing 11 eggs which hatched during the first week in June. This nest was a depression in a perfectly bare sandy flat without a particle of concealment of any kind. The cavity was located in the most exposed position within hundreds of yards, and was fairly well lined with weed stems, grass, etc. and well rimmed with down. The brooding female was very con- spicuous against the background of bare sand, and could be readily seen from a dis- tance of 50 feet or more. This bird was rather wild and flushed while we were yet some distance from the nest.

Mr. Eugene S. Rolfe (1898) records, what I have never seen, a pintail’s nest in a wet situation, which is very unusual; he says:

The nesting of the pintail differs little generally from other ducks that select high dry spots among the prairie grass, badger brush, or old stubble; but a young farmer this year piloted me to a clump of thick green bulrushes covering a space as large as a dining table in the midst of a springy bog, and in the center of this, built up 6 inches out of water (18 inches deep) on a foundation of coarse dried rushes, ex- actly after the manner of the redhead, canvasback, or ruddy, and lined with down, was a veritable nest of the pintail. The female was at home, and permitted approach within 6 feet; and I stood some moments watching her curiously and regretting the absence of my camera before I realized that this was the pintail in a very unusual situation.

The down in the pintail’s nest most closely resembles that of the shoveller, but it is larger and darker. It varies in color from “hair brown” to “fuscous” or “clove brown” with whitish centers. The breast feathers mixed with the down are either of the characteristic banded pattern or are grayish brown with a broad white tip.

Eggs: OnJy one brood is raised in a season and the number of eggs in the set averages less than with other surface feeding ducks. The set varies from 6 to 12 eggs, but it is usually less than 10. It is unusual to find the eggs of other ducks in a pintail’s nest, but as the eggs closely resemble those of some other species, it may be a commoner occurrence than it is supposed to be. Mr. Edward Arnold (1894) records the finding of a golden eye’s egg in a pintail’s nest in Manitoba. The eggs closely resemble, in color and general appearance, those of the mallard and the shoveller, but they average smaller than the former and slightly larger than the latter, the measurements overlapping in both cases. In shape they are usually elliptical ovate and the color varies from very pale olive green to very I)ale olive buff, which fades out to a mere tint.

Although the eggs of the pintail can not be separated v:ith cer- tainty from those of the above two species the nests of all three can usually be identified if a clear view of t.he female is obtained as she flies from the nest; the female pintail can be distinguished from female mallard by the absence of the purple speculum with its con- spicuous white borders and by its long slender form; she can be dis- tinguished from the shoveller by her larger size and her small bill; the female shoveller has a long neck, but a conspicuously large bill; the wing pattern is different, but the difference is difficult to detect in the rapidily moving wings of a flying duck.

The measurements of 102 eggs, in various collections, average 54.9 by 38.2 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 60 by 38.5, 58.5 by 40.5, 60.5 by 37.2 and 53 by 35 millimeters.

Young: The period of incubation is about 22 or 23 days and the incubation is performed wholly by the female; she is a very close sitter and is often nearly trodden upon before she will leave the nest; I have heard of one being knocked over with a stick or a plowman’s whip as she fluttered off, and it is not a difficult matter to photograph one on her nest. The male does not, I believe, wholly desert the female during the process of incubation and he assists somewhat in the care of the young, though he is not as bold in their defense. The young remain in the nest for a day or so after they are hatched or until the down is thoroughly dried. The whole brood usually hatches within a few hours, for, although only one egg is laid each day, in- cubation does not begin until the set. is complete. As soon as the young are strong enough to walk they are led by their mother to the nearest water, which is often a long distance away, and taught to feed on soft insect and aquatic animal food. I have seen some re- markable demonstrations of parental solicitude by female pintails; they are certainly the most courageous of any of the ducks in die defense of their young. Once in North 1)akota as we waded out into a marsh a female pintail flew towards us, dropped into the x~ater near its, and began splashing about in a state of great excitement. The young ducks were probably well hidden among the reeds, though we could not see or hear them. During all the time, for an hour or more, that we were wading around the little slough that l)intail watched us and followed us closely, flying about our heads and back and forth over the slough, frequently splashing down into the water near us in the most reckless manner, swimming about in small cirdes or splashing along the surface of the water, as if wounded, and often near enough for us to have hit her with a stick, quacking excitedly all the time. I never saw a finer exhibition of parental devotion than was shown by her total disregard of her own safety, which did not cease until we left the locality entirely. I have had several similar experiences elsewhere. If alarmed, when swimming in the sloughs, the young seldom attempt to dive though they can do so, if necessary; they more often swim into the reeds and hide while the mother bird attracts the attention of the intruder. Doctor Cones (1874) says that during July in Montana: the young were just beginning to fly, in most instances, while the old birds were for the most part deprived of flight by molting of the quills. Many of the former were killed with sticks, or captured by hand, and afforded welcome variation of our hard fare. On invasion of the grassy or reedy pools where the ducks were, they generaliy crawled shyly out upon the prairie around, and there squatted to hide; so that we procured more from the dry grass surrounding than in the pools themselves. I have sometimes stumbled thus upon several together, crouching as close as possible, and caught them all in my hands.

Dr. Harold C. Bryant (1914) relates the following incident: On May 21 a pintail with 10 downy young was discovered on the bank of a pond. When first disturhed she was brooding her young on dry ground t.bout 10 feet from the water. The moment she flew the downy young assumed rigidly the same pose they had variously held beneath the mother. Some were standing nearly erect whereas others were crouching, but all were huddled close together. They remained perfectly motionless while, leaving Kendall to watch, I went for the camera. I hsd gone over a hundred yards before they moved. By the time I returned they had wandered off about 10 yards. They marched in single file and every now and then huddled close together posing motionless for a few moments.

Plumages: The downy young is grayer and browner than other young surface-feeding ducks and thus easily recognized. The crown is dark, rich “clove brown”; a broad superciliary stripe of grayish white extends from the lores to the occiput; below this the side of the head is mainly grayish white, fading to pure white on the throat and chin, with a narrow postocular stripe of “clove brown” and a paler and broader stripe of the same below it. The back is “clove brown,” darkest on the rump, with grayish or buffy tips on the down of the upper back; the rump and scapular spots are white, the latter sometimes elongated into stripes. The lower parts are grayish white, palest in the center. The chest, and sometimes the sides of the head, are suffused with pinkish buff, but never with yellow. The colors become duller and paler as the bird grows older. When the young bird is about 3 weeks old the first feathers appear on the flanks and scapulars and the tail becomes noticeable; about a week later feathers begin to show on the rump, breast, head, and neck, and the bird is fully grown before its contour plumage is complete; the flight feathers are the last to be acquired. The length of time required to complete the first plumage varies greatly in different individuals, but the sequence in which it appears is uniform.

Mr. J. G. Millais (1902) says of the sequence of plumages to maturity:

When in first plumage the young male and female are exceedingly like one an- other, especially at the commencement of this period they also resemble the mother to a certain extent, but from her they can be easily distinguished by the small spots which cover the breast and belly, and the narrow brown edge of the feathers on the back and scapulars. The young male pintail, however, like the young mallard drake, almost as soon as he has assumed his first dress commences to color change in the back and scapulars. A gray tinge suffuses the brown plumage and slight reticu- lations appear on the feathers themselves, rendering it easy to notice the difference between him and the young female. He is also somewhat larger. By the middle of September the usu2.l molt and the more a(lvanced feather changes commence, and sometimes, in birds in a high state of condition, advance so rapidly, that young drakes of the year may attain the full plumage of tile adult drake by the beginning of Dec- ember. Most of them, however, retain a considerable proportion of the brown plu- mage until February, when the spring flush finishes off the dress. Even then young pintail drakes are not nearly so brilliant as 2 or 3 year old birds, and often show their youthfulness by their shorter tail, dull coloring on the head, and reticulated black bars traversing the white stripes on either side of the neck.

There is considerable individual variation in the length of time re- quired by young birds t.o throw off the last signs of immaturity, but old and young birds become practically indistinguishable before the first eclipse plumage is assumed and entirely so after it is discarded. Some male pintails begin to show the first spotted feathers of the eclipse plumage early in Juno and during July the molt progresses rapidly and uniformly over the whole hody, head, and neck until the full eclipse is complete in August, and the males are indistinguishable from females except by the wings and the difference in size. The wings are mohed only once, of course, in August; and, after the flight feathers are fully grown, early in September, the second molt into the adult winter begins; this molt is usually not completed until November or December, the time varying with different individuals. I have never detected any signs of a spring mGit in male pintails, but Mr. Millais calls attention to the fact t.hat females which have pure white breasts in the winter become more or less spotted during the nesting season.

Food: The pintail is a surface feeder, dipping below the surface only with the fore part of its body, with its tail in the air, maintain- mg its balance by paddling with its feet, while its long neck is reach- ing for its food. Here it feeds on the bulbous roots and tender shoots of a great variety of water plants, as well as their seeds; it also finds some animal food such as minnows, crawfish, tadpoles, leeches, worms, snails, insects, and larvae. Dr. F. henry Yorke (1899) states that it feeds on wheat, barley, buckwheat, and Indian corn. Audubon (1840) says of its animal food:

It feeds on tadpoles in spring and leeches in autumn, while, during winter, a dead mouse, should it come in its way, is swallowed with as much avidity as by a mallard. To these articles of food it adds insects of all kinds, and, in fact, it is by no means an inexpert flycatcher.

Dr. P. L. Hatch (1892) says that, in Minnesota, the pintails may be found in spring “along the recently opened streams, and in the woodlands where they spend much of their time in search of acorns, insects, snails, and larvae of different kinds, which are under the wet leaves and on the old decaying logs with which the forests abound.” Mr. Edward A. Preble (1908) found it feeding on small mollusks (Li,’mnaea palustris) in northern Canada, and Mr. F. C. Baker (1889) dissected 15 stomachs in Florida, all of which contained “shells of Truncatella ~ubcylindrica (Say).” Mr. Douglas C. Mabbott (1920) sums up the food of the pintail as follows:

Vegetable matter constitutes about seven-eighths (87.15 per cent) of the total food of the pintail. This is made up of the following items: Pondweeds, 28.04 per cent; sedges, 21.78; grasses, 9.64; smartweeds and docks, 4.74; arrow gram, 4.52; musk gram and other algae, 3.44; arrowhead and water plantain, 2.84; goosefoot family, 2.58; water lily family, 2.57; duckweeds, 0.8; water milfoils, 0.21; and miscellaneous vege- table food, 5.99 per cent.

The animal portion, 12.85 per cent, of the food of the pintail was made up of mol- lusks, 5.81 per cent; crustaceans, 3.79 per cent; insects, 2.85 per cent; and miscel- laneous, 0.4 per cent.

Behavior: The pintail is built on graceful, clipper lines and is well fitted to cleave the air at a high rate of speed; it has been credited by gunners with ability to make 90 miles an hour; this may be rather a high estimate of its speed, but it is certainly very fleet of wing and surpassed by few if any of the ducks. Mr. Walter H. Rich (1907) says:

The pintails flight will at once remind the bay gunner of that of the “old squaw,” so well known along the Atlantic coast. The same chain lightning speed and darting and wheeling evolutions are common to both species.

Dr. E. W. Nelson (1887) who had good opportunities for studying this species in Alaska, gives the following graphic account of one of its remarkable flight performances:

During the mating season they have a habit of descending from a great altitude at an angle of about 45,0 with their wings stiffly outspread and slightly decurved down- ward. They are frequently so high that I have heard the noise produced by their passage through the air from 15 to 20 seconds before the bird came in sight. They descend with meteorlike swiftness until within a few yards of the ground, when a slight change in the position of the wings sends the birds gliding away close to the ground from 100 to 300 yards without a single wing stroke. The sound produced by this swift passage through the air can only be compared to the rushing of a gale through tree tops. At first it is like a murmur, then rising to a hiss, and then almost assuming the proportions of a roar as the bird sweeps by.

The pintail can generally be distinguished in ffight by its long, slim neck and slender build, which is conspicuous in both sexes; the tail is also more pointed than in other species, even without the long tail feathers of the full plumaged male. The pintail springs upward from the water, much like a teal, and gets under way at once; a flock of pintails flushed suddenly will often bunch together so closely as to give the gunner a chance for a destructive shot.

The pintail is a graceful swimmer, riding lightly on the surface, with its tail pointing upward, its general attitude suggestive of a swan and with its long neck stretched up, alert to every danger, the first to give the alarm and always the first of the shy waterfowl to spring into flight. The hunter must be very cautious if he would stalk this wary bird. Though not a diver from choice, the pintail can dive when necessity requires it. It often escapes by diving while in the flightless stage of eclipse plumage.

Mr. Hersey’s notes on this species in Alaska record the following interesting observation:

While the pintail is not a diving duck it can dive readily if wounded and in other emergencies. On one occasion a female followed by two males flew past and I shot the female. She dropped into a nearby pond but when I reached the shore ha4 crawled into the grass and hidden. Circling the pond, which was but 30 or 40 feet in width by about the same number of yards in length, I soon reached my bird. Without hesitation she dove and crossed to the other side under water. The water was fairly clear and not more than 30 inches deep and the bird’s movements could be plainly watched. The body was held at an angle, with the neck extended but not straight and the head slightly raised. The wings were partly opened but were not used and the feet struck out alternately as in running rather than with a swim- ming motion. The bird reminded me of a frightened chicken crossing the road in front of an automobile but the speed was much slower through the water than in the case of the chicken. The bird did not run on the bottom of the pond but was per- haps 6 or 7 inches from the bottom. On reaching the opposite shore she came up directly into the concealment of the grass. This proceeding was repeated in exactly the same manner several times before I secured the bird.

The following incident, described by Mr. Frank T. Noble (1906) will illustrate a strange habit which this and nearly all ducks have of disappearing beneath the surface when wounded; he had shot two pintails, one being: killed outright, the other, a big drake, being hard hit and with one wing broken. Before the latter could be shot over, he made a dive with considerable difficulty and disappeared from view. We waited perhaps half a minute for him to appear again, but not doing so we paddled to the spot, where we found the water there. abouts to be scarcely 3 feet deep, and the bottom to be thickly covered with various kinds of lily pads and grasses. A few moments of careful search and the duck was discovered on the bottom, grasping with its bill the tough stem of a cowslip. The body of the bird floated upward posteriorly, somewhat higher than the position of the head, and the long tail feathers were a foot or more nearer the surface than the former. The bird’s feet were outstretched, but he was motionless until molested, then he kicked and fluttered vigorously, all the time retaining his hold upon the bottom, and it required considerable force to break him away from his queer anchorage.

Mr. J. G. Millais (1902) says that:

The nuptial call of the drake is identical with that of the teal. The female only oc- casionally utters a low quack, but she sometimes makes a call something like the growling croak of the female widgeon. The notes of both sexes are always quite distinct.

The ordinary note of the male pintail is a low mellow whistle, and I doubt if it ever utters the quacking note which should be attributed to the female; the rolling note, similar to that of the lesser scaup duck, may be common to both sexes; Dr. E. W. Nelson (1887) says that this note “may be imitated by rolling the end of the tongue with the mouth ready to utter the sound of k.

The pintail associates freely on its breeding grounds with various species of ducks, particularly with the mallard, gadwall, blue-winged teal, baldpate, shoveller, and lesser scaup duck. It usually flocks by itself, however, on migrations. Its most formidable enemy is man; for with the sportsman the pintail is a favorite. Its eggs are also sought for food, in some localities quite regularly, for the nests are easily found and the eggs are very palatable. Mr. Robert B. Rock- well (1911) has published a photograph of a bull snake robbing a pintail’s nest in Colorado. I have seen nests in Saskatchewan which showed signs of having been robbed by coyotes.

Fall: Although the pintail is one of our earliest migrants in the spring, it seems much less hardy in the fall and is one of the first of the ducks to seek the sunny South as soon as the first frosty nights proclaim the approach of autumn. Doctor Yorke (1899) says of the fall migration:

In the fall migration they differ from other cold-weather birds of the nondivers in returning south before the cold weather sets in; in fact, the first frost finds those which bred in the United States rapidly wending their way toward the frost line. The first issue to come down in the fall usually leaves the northern part of Minnesota and North Dakota about the end of August. They associate a good deal with the baldpates and gadwalls, using the same feeding, roosting, and playgrounds in the fall, not associating with them in the spring owing to their having gone north several weeks before them, and feeding to a large extent upon grain and corn fields. The second fall issue generally overtakes the first before they reach the frost line. They collect in some quiet piece of water, migrate at night and never return that fall. They do not assume their full plumage north of the frost line.

Game: As a game bird the pintail ranks about third among the surface-feeding ducks, next in importance to the mallard and black duck; its wariness and its swiftness on the wing test the cunning and skill of the sportsman; its wide distribution, its abundance and its excellent table qualities give it a prominent place as a food bird. Late winter and early spring shooting was popular in the Middle West before the laws prohibited it, where the birds arrived early, as soon as the ice began to break up in the marshes and slouglis; here the birds were shot on their morning and evening flights to and from their feeding grounds from blinds or boats concealed in their fly ways, no decoys being necessary. Pintails will come readily to live mallard decoys during the daytime on their feeding grounds and they will respond to duck calls if skillfully handled, offering very fine sport where they are not shot at too much.

Dr. Leonard C. Sanford (1903) says: In portions of the West where they frequent the ponds and smaller lakes they are much more easily killed than on larger bodies of water. The pintail arrives on the coast of North Carolina late in October, and are found in numbers through the brackish sounds: Decoys attract them occasionally, but never in as large numbers as the other ducks, for they are always wary and quick to suspect danger. These birds can be distin- guished afar. The white under parts of the male and their long necks mark them at once. The ifight is high in lines abreast, but almost before the flock is seen they are by and out of sight. When about to decoy no bird is more graceful; they often drop from a height far out of range and circle about the stool, watching carefully for the slightest motion; finally they swing within range and plunge among the wooden ducks. After realizing the mistake, they spring up all together, and are out of shot almost before you realize the chance is gone.

Winter: Like many other fresh-water ducks of the interior the pintail winters largely on the warm seacoasts of the Southern States, though it is also abundant among the inland ponds and marshes below the frost line. It is particularly abundant in Florida, as the following account by Mr. C. J. Maynard (1896) will show:

On one occasion, while I was making my way down Indian River, numbers of these ducks were passing over my heed southward. They flew in straggling flocks, con- sisting of from twenty to some hundreds of specimens, and one company followed another so closely that there was an almost unbroken line. They continued to move in this manner all the morning; thus many thousands of individuals must have passed us. Shortly after noon they began to alight along the beaches in such numbers that they fairly covered the ground, and were so unsuspicious that my assistant, who had left the boat some time previous, walked within a few yards of them, and killed three or four with a single discharge of a light gun which was merely loaded with a small charge of dust shot. This occurred in early March and the birds were evi- dently gathering, preparatory to migrating northward, for in a few days they had all disappeared.

While wintering on the seacoast, especially where it is much mo: lested, the pintail often spends the day well out on the ocean, flying in at night to feed in the shallow tidal estuaries on the beds of Zostera or on the mud and sand flats where it finds plenty of small mollusks.

Breeding range: The species is circumpolar. The North American form breeds east to the west coast of Hudson Bay, and James Bay (both coasts), and rarely east of Lake Michigan. It has been known to breed in New Brunswick (Tobique River, 1879) and in southern Ontario (Rondeau, Lake Erie) and southeastern Michigan (St. Clair Flats~. South to northern Illinois (formerly, but now scarce even in Wisconsin), central Iowa (Hamilton and Sac Counties), central western Nebraska (Garden and Morrill Counties), northern Colorado (Larimer County and Barr Lake region), northern Utah (Bear River marshes), and southern California (Riverside County). West to the central valleys of California (Los Angeles, Kern, Merced, Sutter, and Butte Counties), central Oregon (Klamath and Maiheur Lakes), west- ern Washington (Pierce County), central British Columbia (Cariboo), and the Bering Sea coast of Alaska. North to the Arctic coast of Alaska (Point Barrow), northern Mackenzie (Fort Anderson), and the Arctic coast west of Hudson Bay. Replaced in northern Europe and Asia by a closely allied subspecies.

Winter range: East to the Atlantic coast of the United States, the Bahamas, Cuba, and Porto Rico, and rarely to the Lesser Antilles (Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Antigua). South to Jamaica and Pan- ama. West to the Pacific coast of Central America, Mexico, and the United States. North along the Pacific slope to southern British Columbia (Chilliwack and Okanagan Lake); in the interior north to northeastern Colorado (Barr Lake), Okiaholna, central Missouri (Mis- souri River), southern Illinois (Mount Cannel), southern Ohio (Ohio River), Maryland (Chesapeake Bay), and eastern Virginia (Cobb Is- land). Said to winter regularly in southern Wisconsin and casually as far north as southeastern Nebraska (Lincoln) and southeastern Maine (Calais). Winters jn Hawaiian Islands.

Spring migration: Early dates of arrival: Pennsylvania, Erie, February 23; New York, northwestern, February 25; Newfoundland, Grand Lake, April 20; Illinois, Chicago, March 12; North Dakota, Larimore, March 20; Manitoba, Raeburn, April 5; Mackenzie, Fort Simpson, April 28; Alaska, Koxvak River, May 14; and Demarcation Point, May 24. Average dates of arrival: Illinois, southern, Feb- ruary 26; Missouri, central, February 26; Iowa, Keokuk, February 18; Illinois, Chicago, March 20; Minnesota, southern, March 9; Minne- sota, northern, April 8; North Dakota, Larimore, April 3; Saskat- chewan, Qu’ Appelle, April 10; Manitoba, Raeburn, April 8; Mac- kenzie, Great Slave Lake, May 1: Alaska, St. Michael, about May 1.

Fall migration: Early dates of arrival: Quebec, Montreal, Septem- ber 3; Long Island, Mastic, August 21; Massachusetts, eastern, September 11; Pennsylvania, Erie, September 6: Virginia, Alexan- dr~a, September 13; Florida, Wakulla County, September 11; Texas, Corpus Christi, August 18; California, Santa Barbara, August 25; Lower California, southern, August 29. Late dates of departure: Alaska, Point Barrow, September 7; Kowak River, September 14; and St. Michael, October 10; Mackenzie, Fort Franklin, September 27; Long Island, East Rocka~vay, December 24.

Casual records: Has occurred in Porto Rico (Cartagena Lagoon, April 8, 1921), Bermuda (winter 1847: 48 and October 26, 1875), Greenland (Godthaab and “northern”), and Labrador (Hopedale, Davis Inlet, etc.). Recorded from Laysan Island.

Egg dates: Alaska and Arctic America: Fifty-five records, May 23, to July 16; twenty-eight records, June 10 t.o 24. California, Colorado, and Utah: Twenty-two records, April 30 to June 29; eleven records, May 15 to 30. Manitoba and Saskatchewan: Twenty records, May 16 to July 3: ten records, June 4 to 14. North Dakota: Twenty-three records, May 11 to June 27; twelve records, May 23 to June 10.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

Let others know your thoughts or ask an expert

Would you like to get new articles of birds (Once a month?)

No SPAM! We might only send you fresh updates once a month

Thank you for subscribing!

No thanks! I prefer to follow BirdZilla on Facebook