For the Birds Radio Program: Northern Pintail
One of the most beautiful ducks on the planet, elegant in color and design both, is the Northern Pintail. Right now this lithe creature is perched in the number three spot on the National Audubon Society’s list of the most rapidly declining common birds—the pintail population has dropped a full 77% in the last 40 years. I like to think that because this is a popular game bird, sportsmen will take up the slack in saving it. But in light of the declining populations of other game birds such as Sage Grouse, prairie chickens, bobwhite, redheads, canvasbacks, American Woodcock, and Ruffed Grouse, expecting hunters to work harder to protect pintails is apparently magical thinking. This is not at all to say that a great many hunters aren’t serious conservationists who pull their weight in bird protection far more than most birders do. But that breed of hunter is dwindling in numbers. The number of Duck Stamps sold is declining steadily as a new kind of hunter—the kind that shoots 70 pheasants and an undisclosed number of Mallards on a game farm on a single day without even buying a hunting license to support wild gamebirds and habitat—seems to be increasing.
I saw my first pintail on April 3, 1976, at the Maple River flooding area in Michigan. It blew me away—I’d never even imagined it was possible for a duck to be so sleek and elegant. The gracefully curved and tapering line on the Pintail’s neck perfectly accentuates its beauty. If Audrey Hepburn had been born a duck, she most assuredly would have been a Pintail.
The conservation problems of this exceptional species are pretty clearly summed up in a paragraph in the Birds of North America:
Predators and farming operations destroy many thousands of Northern Pintail nests annually; farming has also greatly reduced the amount of quality nesting cover available. Winter habitats are threatened by water shortages, agricultural development, contamination, and urbanization. Periods of extended drought in prairie nesting regions have caused dramatic population declines, usually followed by periods of recovery. Over the long term, however, the continental population of Northern Pintails has declined significantly from 6 million birds in the early 1970s to less than 3 million in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Pintails are clearly in trouble, but because so many people really do love them, including hunters who’ve spent a lot of time in the field admiring them, I’m not as worried about them as I am about other species that aren’t as gorgeous or well known and whose disappearance wouldn’t be as obvious.
I don’t get to see pintails nearly as often up here near Lake Superior as I did when I lived in the prairie pothole area of south central Wisconsin, and the Dakotas and the prairie areas of Canada are the epicenter of their range. They’re a bit like Blue Jays—the kind of bird that is so breathtakingly beautiful that people would flock from hundreds of miles away to see one, if only they were rare. I sure hope the day never comes that people need to drive hundreds of miles to see a Northern Pintail.