The Northern Pintail is a rather large duck with a wingspan of about three feet, body length about 2½ feet and weighing up to 3 pounds. The species is widespread in distribution, occurring across North America, Europe and Asia, and is only surpassed in abundance by the Mallard.
The female is rather dull brown with a speckled body and darker wings and a rusty brown head. The male has a distinctive white breast with a white streak growing upward along the neck, with a dark reddish-brown head. The male’s body is light gray and the wings show secondary feathers grading from orange to dark green to white along the trailing edge. The rump is black and the long black pointed central tail feathers in the male are the reason for its name.
The breeding range is in northern arctic and subarctic regions, in open wetlands and tundra, normally near water. In North America the breeding range extends southward into the northern Great Plains states. They are found year round in Nevada, Utah, and parts of other western states. The winter range extends across the southern U.S. and into Mexico and Central America. Northern Pintails are common along the Rio Grande in New Mexico and can be seen regularly in the managed flooded wetlands at the Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge south of Socorro.
The female constructs a shallow depression on a dry spot in a marsh or open grassland, lining the nest with grass, leaves and down. The 6-12 chicks are precocial and able to follow after the female within hours of hatching. She leads them to a nearby pond or marsh where they are able to feed themselves, primarily eating insects initially. The young are able to fly after about 6 weeks.
Northern Pintails are dabbling ducks, upending and reaching down from the surface to glean plant matter from the bottom of shallow ponds and marshes. They also take insects and other invertebrates such as crustaceans and mollusks, and even some vertebrates like tadpoles and small fish.
The habit of nesting in open areas on the ground makes the Northern Pintail nests and chicks particularly vulnerable to a variety of predators. Foxes, badgers, bobcats and other mammals readily raid nests, as well as raptors, gulls, and other predatory birds. Northern Pintails are also popular with hunters due to their large size and succulent flesh. Though the species is common and abundant globally, natural predation, diseases, and hunting losses have resulted in enough local population reductions to sometimes result in hunting limits in order to ensure conservation of the population.
Widespread drought conditions in North America have resulted in a reduction of the shallow water marsh habitats favored by Northern Pintails and conversion of wetlands to agricultural uses have also reduced breeding habitat for the birds. In one Canadian study, more than half of Northern Pintail nests being monitored by researchers were found to be destroyed by agricultural activities. The lead shot formerly used in ammunition by hunters also finds its way into the ducks’ diet as they forage at the bottom of ponds where the shot has accumulated in sediments. This has been a particular problem in some European countries where lead shot is still in use. In the U.S. and Canada the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has banned lead shot for waterfowl hunting.
The Audubon Society predicts some breeding range losses in southern Canada as climate warming proceeds. Though diseases have decimated Northern Pintail populations in recent decades, and the species is described generally as “in decline,” it is still abundant enough that the Northern Pintail is not listed as a species of conservation concern at this time.