For the Birds Radio Program: Pintail (remade from 1988)

Original Air Date: Aug. 5, 1990 (estimated date)

What will be necessary to help pintails return to their former large numbers?

Audio missing


(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 may be muted, but they could never be labeled 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, not in the middle of the ocean.

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 food, they are especially vulnerable to botulism and lead poisoning. They’re also regular victims of utility wires, guyed antenna towers, and barbed wire fences. Overhunting has also contributed to the loss of pintail numbers–last year many suitable prairie potholes had no breeding pairs, which means that before the drought, habitat availability wasn’t the primary limiting factor. Steel shot is now being required in many wetlands, and lead shot will 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 inexorably, and pesticides are still running off fields into lakes and ponds. The pintail’s own low rate of reproduction will make any recovery slow and difficult, especially if this year’s heat wave and drought are the result of a greenhouse effect insuring worse weather in the future. 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 shooting pintails will help. But the shameful number of hunting violators throughout the nation, especially in Louisiana and Mississippi, is not encouraging.

I hope that the commitment of the government and conservation organizations is not just a passing political parlay, and that people will begin to make a few sacrifices to save the pintail, or it will soon find itself on the same path as the Passenger Pigeon–gone forever.

(Recording of a Common Pintail)