Bird Lore: Northern Pintail

Elegance comes to mind every time I look at a Northern Pintail. A slender bird with a long neck, its elongated proportions have been likened to those of an El Greco painting. The male, with sliver-blue sides to his bill, looks like he is in the finest evening wear, always ready for a formal night out on the town. The Northern Pintail can be found all around the Northern Hemisphere (Europe, Asia, and North America), breeding in the higher latitudes.

Look for occasional Northern Pintail sightings in Edmonds during fall and winter. Most often this species is seen flying by the waterfront in small flocks or as an occasional single bird in the marsh. When not breeding, this duck favors shallow, grassy wetlands or agricultural fields, coastal wetlands, and mud flats. It is frequently in the company of Mallards. Better opportunities for seeing the Northern Pintail in Snohomish County can be found in the agricultural areas of Snohomish and Silvana-Stanwood.

The Northern Pintail is a dabbling duck. Diet is mostly plant material, including seeds of grasses, sedges, pondweeds, and waste grain in fields. In summer its diet includes more animal matter, such as insects, crustaceans, mollusks, and sometimes tadpoles and small fish. It forages in shallow water by upending or by submerging its head and neck while swimming, looking for food in the underwater mud. It also forages by walking on land.

Pair formation begins on the wintering grounds and continues through spring migration, although some birds may not form pairs until they arrive on their breeding grounds. When several males court one female, it leads to pursuit flights. The female builds her nest on dry ground in short vegetation, usually near water. It can, however, be up to half a mile away. The Northern Pintail nest is often more exposed than the nests of other duck species. It is a shallow depression lined with leaves, grasses and twigs, with a final layer of down.

The female incubates her 6-10 eggs for about three weeks. She leads the young away from the nest a few hours after hatching. The young birds feed themselves but are not capable of flight until they are about a month and a half of age. The wintering Northern Pintail population of the Puget Trough will leave for its breeding grounds in early spring. Southward migration occurs throughout the autumn months. This species migrates in flocks.

The oldest recorded Northern Pintail was a male, at least 22 years and three months of age when found in Saskatchewan. In flight, all ducks are referred to as flocks. On the water, they are called a raft, a team, or a paddling. When on the ground, a group of ducks is a brace or a badling.

The North American Breeding Bird Survey noted a cumulative decline of the Northern Pintail population of 72% between 1966 and 2012. The 2014 State of the Birds report listed this species as a common bird in steep decline. The Northern Pintail is vulnerable to nest losses from farming operations because it uses cropland as nesting habitat. The species is also vulnerable to nest predation by mammals such as coyotes, red foxes, mink, raccoons, badgers, and ground squirrels. Nest parasitism is also a problem for this species. The introduced Ring-necked Pheasant along with other native duck species such as Redhead, Ruddy Duck, Common Goldeneye, and Blue-winged Teal will lay eggs in a Northern Pintail nest. When this happens, the hatchability of the Northern Pintail eggs can be reduced by a third.

The Northern Pintail’s flight call can be heard here:

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

  1. Interesting information Carol! I saw several large flocks of Pintails at Semiahmoo a few weeks ago.

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