By Matt Young
Waterfowlers who began hunting after 1980 may find it hard to believe that the pintail was once second only to the mallard as North America’s most common duck. In fact, pintails may have even outnumbered mallards at times in the Pacific Flyway. But older duck hunters can remember when these sleek and beautiful birds filled the skies in amazing numbers and daily limits of as many as 10 drake pintails per hunter came easily. For these veteran waterfowlers, witnessing the steady decline of pintails on their favorite hunting areas has been nothing short of heartbreaking.
Nowhere has the plight of the pintail been more apparent than in California, where the majority of the Pacific Flyway population gathers in winter. During the 1970s—the most recent era in which pintail populations were considered healthy—between 3 million and 4 million of these birds wintered in the state’s vast Central Valley, and California duck hunters harvested an average of more than 600,000 pintails a year. In recent years, pintail numbers in the Central Valley have dwindled to only about 1 million birds, and last season, hunters bagged slightly less than 100,000 pintails out of a total statewide duck harvest of more than 1.4 million birds.
Similar declines in pintail numbers and harvests have also occurred in other traditional pintail strongholds such as Utah’s Great Salt Lake and the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas. To help reverse the long-term decline of the pintail, Ducks Unlimited has launched an international conservation initiative dedicated to restoring the species to its former abundance. This initiative, involving many conservation partners across North America, focuses on protecting and restoring vital pintail breeding habitats on the prairies of the United States and Canada, as well as on key migration and wintering areas in the United States and Mexico.