The Northern Pintail Duck

James L. Cummins

by James L. Cummins

The northern pintail, (Anas acuta), is elegant and graceful. Sleek and a swift flyer, it is sometimes called “the greyhound of the air.” Other common names include spike, spiketail, sprigrail, and sprig. The pintail is found in all four flyways, but it is more common in the Pacific and Central flyways than in the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways.

Identifying a drake pintail is relatively easy. It has a slim body, long neck, and a long, pointed tail feather. The drake has a thin, white stripe running from the back of its chocolate-colored head to its breast and belly. Gray, brown, and black plumage color its back, sides, and tail. The hen’s plumage is subdued, with no distinctive patterning present in her brown, mottled feathers. Both sexes have gray legs and feet and blue-gray bills. Both the drake and hen have distinctive tail feathers, but the drake’s is longer.

The pintail is one of the first ducks to migrate south in the fall and one of the first to migrate north in the spring. Winter migration starts in late August and can carry into early October. After a few short months in the South, the pintail starts its journey back north, often before the ice and snow have melted from their nesting grounds. Northern migration usually starts in late January and lasts through March.

Nesting sites are commonly found in open areas, close to the ground, where vegetation is sparse.

Both sexes reach sexual maturity at 1 year old. Courting consists of the male swimming close to the female with his head lowered and tail raised, while issuing a continuous whistle. If the males outnumber the females, they will chase the female in flight until only one drake remains.

Breeding occurs between April and June. The female typically lays anywhere from 6 to 12, pale-olive eggs at a rate of one per day. The hen is solely responsible for incubation, which takes place between 21 and 25 days. Within a few hours after hatching, the hen leads her chicks to the nearest body of water to feed themselves. The chicks are capable of flight 38 to 52 days after hatching, but they will stay with the female until she has completed molting.

The pintail’s winter diet consists mostly of plant materials, especially seeds of grasses, pondweeds, widgeon grass, and sedges. Its diet during nesting season consists mostly of insects, mollusks, and crustaceans. They have also been known to eat tadpoles and small fish.

Pintail nests and chicks are vulnerable to predators such as foxes, badgers, gulls, magpies, and crows. Pintails are also susceptible to a variety of parasites and avian diseases. Thankfully, the pintail has a wide range and boasts healthy population numbers.

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