The northern pintail (Anas acuta) is both unique and graceful. The male’s head is chocolate-colored, contrasting with his white neck and the white finger that outlines the backside of the face. Most of his body is grayish, with a brown tint on the back. A band of yellowish white separates the gray flanks from the black tail.
The female is primarily a pale, streaky brown all over. If you are able to get a closer look, note the V-shaped pattern on most of her feathers.
Male and female pintails share some similar characteristics. Their bills, legs, and feet are gray. Overall, their shape is long and slim. They are noted for their long, pointed tails, most dramatic in the male. They have green speculums, but more conspicuous is the white line on the trailing edge of the wing.
Best Field Marks
- Gray bill, legs, and feet.
- White “finger” marking on face of male.
- White line on the trailing edge of wing.
- Long, pointed tail.
Pintails are quiet ducks. The males rarely make any noise, but they do become more vocal during the spring. Their basic call is a whistle with either one or two notes, sometimes compared to a train whistle on a very small scale.
The female is slightly noisier. Her call is a low quack, more guttural than the sound of a mallard.
Distribution & Occurrence
The northern pintail is among the most common ducks of Kansas, congregating in tremendous flocks during migrational season. It is considered a sign of spring by some, usually making its first appearance toward the end of February. Spring migration continues through May. During this time, pintails tend to collect in nearly any shallow body of water ranging from lakes to flooded fields.
While pintails do not breed annually in Kansas, a nest may show up from time to time in the western parts of the state, particularly at Cheyenne Bottoms. The next major influx of pintails occurs during fall migration, particularly near the end of October. Small flocks will ride out the winter in Kansas wherever they can find open water.
This is a somewhat timid duck that is most active in the evening. It must feel that there is safety in numbers, since it seems to like mixing with large flocks of other species of ducks, particularly in fall and winter. Watching an unmixed flock of pintails can be interesting, however, as they are known for dropping from the sky at a startling speed.
The northern pintail is a dabbling duck that prefers to feed in shallow water. Most of its diet consists of plant matter ranging from pond weeds to waste grain, but it will consume a fair proportion of insects, snails, and crustaceans.
Unlike most dabbling ducks, pintails court in the air, the male attracting attention by falling from the sky with a loud swoosh. While these ducks only form one pair per year, the male will actively hybridize with females of many other species, including mallards, gadwalls, American wigeons, northern shovelers, and redhead ducks.
The female pintail builds a nest in short grass near the water. She lines it with down and a variety of plant matter, such as grass, leaves, moss, and twigs. She may lay as few as three or as many as 12 eggs, usually some shade of an olive color but sometimes cream-colored. The egg-laying process may occur anywhere from mid-April to early July in Kansas. The female sits on the eggs for 22 to 25 days, using a broken-wing act to lure predators away from the nest if necessary.
The young ducklings can leave the nest within a few hours of hatching. While they are zealously protected by the female, they are responsible for finding their own food. They may be able to fly at anywhere from one to two months of age. At this time, the female goes into hiding to molt.
Providing a body of open water is all that is necessary to attract pintails.
Hunters rely on distinctive pintail decoys.
Female Dabbling Ducks
At first glance, the female pintail may be dismissed as just another female dabbling duck. This is a mistake, since she can actually be distinguished from other species quite easily. The first clue is the long tail. If you are still not sure, check for the gray bill. While this field mark is shared by a few other species, it does whittle down the possibilities. Finally, note the overall build of the duck. The pintail is slender and long-necked, not diminutive like a teal or front-heavy like a shoveler.
The long tail gives these two species a superficially similar appearance, but even a quick glance at other field marks can dispel any confusion. Note that both male and female long-tailed ducks have faces that are primarily white. Also, they have a small, chunky build quite unlike that of the pintail.
Photos, audio, and more information from Cornell’s All About Birds site.