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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

BREEDING MALE

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.

Female

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.

Juvenile

The immature Northern Pintail is similar to the adult female.

Habitat

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

Diet

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

Northern Pintail

Photograph © Greg Lavaty.

Behavior

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

Range

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.

Vocalizations

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.

Nesting

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.

Northern Pintail male

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. Flanks with fine vermiculations.  Males in non-breeding plumage much paler, but general pattern of markings on the neck still visible. Photograph ©  Sam Crowe.

Northern Pintail female

Females are mostly brownish, with a dark gray bill and mostly unmarked brown head. Juveniles resemble females. Long neck but can be curled down. Head can be a tawny brown. Photograph ©  Alan Wilson.

Northern Pintail males

A pair of males.  Photograph ©  Sam Crowe.

Northern Pintail pair

Male and female pintails.  Note the fairly large, slopping bill.  Photograph © Sam Crowe.

Northern Pintail female

In good light, female may show rust color on the face and head. Photograph ©  Tom Grey.

Northern Pintail female

Photograph © Alan Wilson.

Northern Pintail pair in flight

Green speculum bordered by white on the trailing edge and rust on the leading edge. Photograph © Steve Wolfe.

Northern Pintail pair in flight

Female and male in flight. The long tail of the male is evident. Photograph © Steve Wolfe.

Northern Pintail male in flight

Photograph © Steve Wolfe.

Northern Pintail male in flight

A great photo of male pintail in breeding plumage.  The pink on th head is not often seen.  Photograph © Steve Wolfe.

Northern Pintail female

Underwings generally gray, may show the white trailing edge to the speculum. Photograph © Alan Wilson.

Northern Pintail

Photograph © Alan Wilson.

 

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of Birdzilla.com. 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.

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