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Northern Pintail Life History



Northern Pintails breed in seasonal wetlands, open areas with short vegetation, wet meadows, grasslands, and crop fields. During the nonbreeding season they use flooded and dry agricultural fields, lakes, reservoirs, estuaries, saltmarshes, freshwater and brackish wetlands, and bays. Pintails also use different habitats depending on time of day. In California's Central Valley for example, they forage in wetlands by day, and flooded rice fields by night.

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Northern Pintails eat seeds from aquatic plants, worms, snails, crustaceans, aquatic insects, and grains such as rice, wheat, corn, and barley. They pick at seeds and grains while walking or scoop up aquatic insects and seeds with their bills.

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Nest Placement


Males and females fly over wetlands, grasslands, and fields looking for areas with short vegetation. They nest on the ground in croplands, grasslands, wet meadows, seasonal wetlands, and shortgrass prairies often farther from water than other ducks. Northern Pintails are one of the few duck species that nest in tilled croplands.

Nest Description

The female makes several scrapes in the ground before she starts building the nest, ultimately choosing the last scrape made. She slowly adds grasses and down to the depression while laying eggs to form a shallow bowl approximately 7–10 inches wide and 2–4 inches deep.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:3-12 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:1.9-2.3 in (4.9-5.8 cm)
Egg Width:1.3-1.6 in (3.3-4 cm)
Incubation Period:22-24 days
Egg Description:Greenish buff.
Condition at Hatching:Covered in down and able to leave the nest soon after hatching.
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Seemingly at home on land and water, Northern Pintails waddle through fields and swim gracefully with the tail pointed upwards. They erupt in flight from the water's surface at a moment's notice, wheeling and darting through the air on their slender wings. Northern Pintails are generally social birds and rarely fight with other ducks. But when one male threatens another, they jab at their rival with their bill open and chase them with their head hanging low, just above the surface of the water. Males and females also lift their chins to greet each other and sometimes tip their chins when threatened. Pairs form on the wintering grounds, but males often mate with other females on the breeding grounds, and pairs only stay together for a single breeding season. Courting males stretch their necks up and tip their bills down while giving a whistle call. Males also preen behind their wing to expose the green speculum. Interested females follow males with head bobbing, preening, and clucking. Groups of males and females also chase each other in flight, flying high and ranging far afield. While females are still incubating, males leave their mates and begin forming flocks with other males in preparation for migration. They migrate in groups, forming long, wavy lines.

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Low Concern

Northern Pintails are common, but their populations declined by about 2.6% per resulting in a cumulative decline of approximately 75% between 1966 and 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 5.1 million and rates them 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of relatively low conservation concern. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service carefully manages duck hunting and limits the number of individuals hunters can take every year based on population size. From 2019–2020, hunters took on average 366,000 Northern Pintail per year. Populations appear to fluctuate with drought, decreasing during drought years, and recovering in wetter years. Loss of wetland habitat, cultivation of grasslands, and agricultural practices that destroy nests also affect the population. The North American Waterfowl Management Plan is working towards restoring wetlands and working with farmers to reduce nest loss and improve habitat for Northern Pintail.

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Clark, Robert G., Joseph P. Fleskes, Karla L. Guyn, David A. Haukos, Jane E. Austin and Michael R. Miller. (2014). Northern Pintail (Anas acuta), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Raftovich, R. V., K. K. Fleming, S. C. Chandler, and C. M. Cain (2021). Migratory bird hunting activity and harvest during the 2019–20 and 2020-21 hunting seasons. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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