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Northern Pintail Life History


Habitat Marshes

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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Food Omnivore

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

Nest Ground

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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Behavior Dabbler

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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Conservation Low Concern

Northern Pintails are common, but their populations declined by 2.4% per year between 1966 and 2015, resulting in a cumulative decline of 70% over the 49-year period according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Although the North American Breeding Bird Survey suggest a long-term decline in pintail numbers, the data used to calculate the trends may be deficient. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 4.8 million. The species rates a 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, which means it is not on the Partners in Flight Watch List and is a species of low conservation concern. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service carefully manages duck hunting and limit the number of individuals hunters can take every year based on population size. From 2012–2016, hunters took on average 521,607 Northern Pintail per year. Populations appear to fluctuate with drought, decreasing during drought years, and recovering in wetter years. Although populations increased slightly in 2017 according to Ducks Unlimited, 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 (2016). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2016.1. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory, Laurel, MD, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Raftovich, R. V., S. C. Chandler and K. A. Wilkins. (2015). Migratory bird hunting activity and harvest during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 hunting seasons. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Laurel, MD, USA.

Raftovich, R. V., S. C. Chandler, and K. A. Wilkins. (2014). Migratory bird hunting activity during the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 hunting seasons. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Laurel, Maryland, USA.

Raftovich, R. V., S. C. Chandler, and K. A. Wilkins. (2016). Migratory bird hunting activity during the 2014-15 and 2015-16 hunting seasons. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Laurel, MD, USA.

Raftovich, R. V., S. C. Chandler, and K. K. Fleming. (2017). Migratory bird hunting activity during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 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 (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. 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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