Northern Pintail

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Common Name: Northern Pintail
Scientific Name: Anas acuta

Size: 21-25 inches (54.3-63.5 cm); Wingspan: 31-37 inches (80-95 cm)

Habitat: Worldwide; breeds across northern areas of Eurasia south to about Poland and Mongolia, and in Canada, Alaska and the Midwestern United States. It winters mainly south of its breeding range, reaching almost to the equator in Panama, northern sub-Saharan Africa and tropical South Asia. Small numbers migrate to Pacific islands, particularly Hawaii, where a few hundred birds winter on the main islands in shallow wetlands and flooded agricultural habitats. Transoceanic journeys may also occur. In parts of the range, such as Great Britain and the northwestern United States, the Pintail may be present all year.

The Northern Pintail's breeding habitat is open non-wooded wetlands, such as wet grassland, lakesides or tundra. In winter, it will utilize a wider range of open habitats, such as sheltered estuaries, brackish marshes and coastal lagoons. It is highly gregarious outside the breeding season and forms very large mixed flocks with other ducks.

Status: Least Concern. Global population: Unknown amount of adult individuals. The overall population trend is decreasing, although some populations may be stable while others are unknown. This species has undergone a large and statistically significant decrease over the last 40 years in North America (-77.3% decline over 40 years, equating to a -31% decline per decade). The species is threatened by wetland habitat loss on its breeding and wintering grounds. Reclamation of coastal areas for industrial development poses a threat in Europe, and major river diversion and irrigation schemes threaten wintering areas in Niger and Nigeria. The species is also threatened by petroleum pollution, wetland drainage, peat-extraction, changing wetland management practices (decreased grazing and mowing in meadows leading to scrub over-growth) and the burning and mowing of reeds in Russia. The species suffers from over-exploitation in Europe, and is hunted for sport in North America. It also suffers poisoning from lead shot ingestion in North America, poisoning from white phosphorous (from firearms) ingestion in Alaska, and reproductive impairment as a result of selenium (Se) accumulation in liver tissues (selenium contained in sub-surface agricultural drain-water used for wetland management in California led to bioaccumulation of the element in the food chain.

Diet: Grain, seeds, weeds, aquatic insects, crustaceans, and snails. They pick food from the surface of the ground and in shallow water they dabble, filter-feeding at the surface with rumps up.

Nesting: The breeding plumaged male (Drake) is unmistakable. It has a chocolate-brown head and white breast with a white stripe extending up the side of the neck. Its upper parts and sides are grey, but elongated grey feathers with black central stripes are draped across the back from the shoulder area. The vent area is yellow, contrasting with the black underside of the tail, which has the central feathers elongated to as much as 10 cm (3.9 in). The bill is bluish and the legs are blue-grey. Males are considerably larger than females.

The adult female is mainly scalloped and mottled in light brown with a more uniformly grey-brown head, and its pointed tail is shorter than the male's; it is still easily identified by its shape, long neck, and long grey bill. In non-breeding (eclipse) plumage, the drake Pintail looks similar to the female, but retains the male upper wing pattern and long grey shoulder feathers. Juvenile birds resemble the female, but are less neatly scalloped and have a duller brown speculum with a narrower trailing edge.

Both sexes reach sexual maturity at one year of age. The male mates with the female by swimming close to her with his head lowered and tail raised, continually whistling. If there is a group of males, they will chase the female in flight until only one drake is left. The female prepares for copulation, which takes place in the water, by lowering her body; the male then bobs his head up and down and mounts the female, taking the feathers on the back of her head in his mouth. After mating, he raises his head and back and whistles.

Breeding takes place between April and June, with the nest being constructed on the ground and hidden amongst vegetation in a dry location, often some distance from water. It is a shallow scrape on the ground lined with plant material and down. The female lays seven to nine cream-colored eggs at the rate of one per day.

The hen alone incubates the eggs for 22 to 24 days before they hatch. The downy chicks are then led by the female to the nearest body of water, where they feed on dead insects on the water surface. The chicks fledge in 46 to 47 days after hatching, but stay with the female until she has completed molting.

While three-quarters of chicks live long enough to fledge, not more than half of those survive long enough to reproduce.

Cool Facts: Like the Mallard, the Northern Pintail breeds in a variety of habitats all across northern North America and Eurasia. Also like the Mallard, island populations have splintered off and evolved into separate species. Two closely related forms can be found on Crozet and Kerguelen islands in the very southern Indian Ocean, known as Eaton's Pintail (Anas eatoni).

The Northern Pintail is among the earliest nesting ducks in North America, beginning shortly after ice-out in many northern areas.

The oldest known Pintail was 27 ½ years old.

Found in Songbird Remix Waterfowl Volume I: Dabbling Ducks

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