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Country Ecology: Northern pintail duck

I used to think the beautiful, exquisite pintail duck was a breed contained only to the midlands of the United States, and in particular, Texas. As a Army flight instructor serving there after my tour in VN, I exulted in chopping throttle in my small military helicopter and dropping down in their midst whenever I discovered flocks on numerous farm ponds found throughout that area of very poor ranching exploits. I just had to see these ducks up close, knowing they did not frequent New England, and that this was my only chance to observe them closely. Of course, there was always some other wise-guy IP in my flight overhead, observing these cowboying episodes, and joyously questioning, "Helicopter making an approach to duck pond, say ID!!" Geez, some of these guys were looking for my head as a superior ranking officer compared to their warrant officer nomenclature. Imagine that.

I find the Northern pintail has been described as "nomads of the skies" due to wide-ranging migrations across the earth. Pintails are named for their elongated central tail feathers, which actually constitute one-fourth of the drake's body length. Northern pintails are long, slender ducks with very narrow wings, earning them the nickname "greyhound of the air." This dabbling duck breeds across northern areas of Eurasia south to Poland and Mongolia; Northern pintails have a circumpolar breeding pattern. In North America, they breed from Alaska, the central Canadian Arctic, and western Greenland south to the western and central United States.

They winter mainly south of their breeding range, reaching almost to the equator in Panama, northern sub-Saharan Africa and tropical South Asia. Small numbers migrate to various Pacific islands, particularly Hawaii, where a few hundred birds winter on the main islands in shallow wetlands and flooded agricultural habitats. Transoceanic journeys also apparently occur; a bird that was caught and "ringed" (bird-banded?) in Labrador, Canada, was shot by a hunter in England nine days later. Japanese-ringed birds have been recovered from six USA states east to Utah and Mississippi. In parts of the range, such as Great Britain and the northwestern United States, the pintail may be present all year.

Thus, the Northern pintail has a global population estimated at 5 million individuals. In the Palearctic, breeding populations are declining in much of the range however, including its stronghold in Russia. Around three-quarters of pintail chicks live long enough to fledge, but not more than half of those survive long enough to reproduce. The maximum recorded age is 27 years and 5 months for a Dutch pintail, but the average life span for most will be much shorter, and likely similar to that of other wild ducks of about two years.

The Northern pintail's breeding habitat is open wetlands, such as wet grassland, lakesides or tundra ponds. In winter, it will utilize a wider range of open space 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. You might want to see some video on YouTube, where it is obviously not a nice guy amongst other ducks, when it is competitively going after offered fodder. So this elegant duck is not always a gentleman despite fine looks.

The pintail feeds mainly in the evening or at night, and therefore spends much of the day resting. Its long neck enables it to take food items from the bottom of water bodies up to 1 foot deep, which are beyond the reach of other dabbling ducks like mallards. Pintails are omnivorous, eating both plant and animal matter.

We may see them here in March on the Connecticut or Merrimack Rivers, and again when migrating southerly in September on the NH Seacoast, even out to Star Island.

Breeding takes place in northern areas 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. Northern pintails nest near seasonal and semi-permanent wetlands that are located in prairie and tundra habitats. Females typically nest on the ground in low or sparse vegetation, often far from water. It is a shallow scrape on the ground and 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. If predators destroy the first clutch, the female can produce a replacement clutch as late as the end of July.

Pintail nests and chicks are vulnerable to predation by mammals, such as foxes and badgers, and birds like gulls, crows and magpies. The adults can take flight to escape terrestrial predators, but nesting females in particular may be surprised by large carnivores such as bobcats.

Dave Eastman also broadcasts "Country Ecology" four times weekly over WMWV 93.5 fm. As Vice President of the Lakes Region Chapter/ASNH, he welcomes you to monthly programs at the Loon Center in Moultonborough. He is available at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (or) www.countryecology.com for consultation.
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