For the Birds Radio Program: Northern Pintail

Original Air Date: Aug. 17, 1988

Pintails have declined dangerously in the past decade.

Duration: 4′04″


(Recording of a Common Pintail)

The most elegant of all North American ducks is in big trouble. The Common Pintail’s numbers have declined dangerously in the past decade, and without help, this lovely bird could well be extirpated from much of its traditional range.

The pintail is the only freshwater duck in North America with long central tail feathers, giving the bird such nicknames as sprigtail and spike tail. Males have a sophisticated beauty– their soft brown, black and white colors would never be called drab. The white stripe arising from the male’s side accentuates the swan-like curve and slenderness of his neck. Females look a bit like dignified, long-tailed female mallards.

Pintails nest on the tundra and near prairie potholes, though they often build their nests over a half-mile away from water. They have fewer ducklings than most ducks–normally only 6-9 in a brood. Unlike many freshwater ducks, a great many pintails spend their winters on salt water. One pintail that was treated for botulism, and then banded and released on the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah in 1942, was found exhausted on Palmyra Island, about 1,000 miles southwest of Honolulu, 3,000 miles west of the American Mainland, 82 days later. That bird must have been awfully hungry–pintails can’t dive for their meals–90% of their food is vegetal–mostly seeds from sedges, grasses, and pondweeds, which they take in the muddy bottoms of shallow water.

Pintails used to be extremely abundant in North America, second only to the Mallard. But a variety of factors have brought their population down 54% since the mid 1950’s. Their wetland homes are being destroyed, and because pintails dabble in mud for feeding, they are especially vulnerable to botulism and lead poisoning. They are also regular victims of utility wires, guyed antenna towers, and barbed wire fences. Overhunting may also have contributed to the loss of pintail numbers–last year many suitable prairie potholes had no breeding pairs, which means habitat availability is currently not the primary limiting factor. Steel shot is now being required in many wetlands, and lead shot should eventually be banned in all areas where pintails live, so there is at least a glimmer of hope. But wetlands are still being filled and drained at an inexorable rate, pesticides are still running off fields into their ponds, and the low rate of reproduction for pintails will make any recovery slow and difficult, especially if this year’s heat wave and drought are an indication of things to come. The Izaak Walton League has called for a greatly restricted hunting season this year, reducing the kill of pintails to as few birds as possible. Every federal and state duck stamp bought by a non-hunter or a hunter who can recognize and resist aiming at pintails will help. But the shameful number of hunting violators throughout the nation, but especially in Louisiana and Mississippi, is not encouraging. I hope that the commitment of the government and conservation organizations is up to the task, or the pintail will soon find itself on the same path as the Passenger Pigeon–gone forever.

(Recording of a Common Pintail)