What Happened to Pintails?
When wet weather returned to the Prairie Pothole Region in the mid-1990s after more than a decade of severe drought, waterfowlers had high hopes the pintail would make a long-awaited comeback. While populations of mallards and most other duck species soared to the highest levels since the 1950s, pintails languished well below their long-term average. In 2005, the abundance of breeding pintails in the traditional survey area increased 17 percent from 2.2 million birds in 2004 to 2.6 million, but the population remained well below the management goal of 5.4 million birds embraced by DU’s International Conservation Plan and the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.
A closer look at the data reveals the pintail decline hasn’t been uniform across the bird’s breeding range. In fact, pintail numbers in northern Canada and Alaska have remained relatively stable during the past 50 years. Rather, the bulk of the shortfall has occurred in the heart of the pintail’s breeding range on the grasslands of southern Canada. An analysis of pintail population data and land-use trends conducted by Ducks Unlimited and Montana State University found that since 1961 breeding pintail numbers have declined mainly in areas where agricultural activity has intensified.
Breeding pintails arrive on the prairies in late March and early April at the beginning of the spring thaw. During wet years, the birds settle on expanses of sheet water formed by melting snow or rain. While deeper potholes and marshes are still frozen, these ephemeral wetlands warm quickly, supporting multitudes of tiny invertebrates that provide breeding hens with the nutrients required to successfully nest and produce eggs. Pintails are birds of wide-open spaces, and unlike mallards and other dabblers, they will nest in short vegetation typical of the semiarid western prairies. Because hens regularly nest in such sparse cover, often as far as a mile from the nearest water, they require large tracts of secure nesting habitat.
During the past century, more than three-fourths of the Prairie Pothole Region’s original grasslands have been lost. Grassland losses have been especially high on flat or gently rolling prairie landscapes, which often contain numerous shallow, ephemeral wetlands preferred by breeding pintails. The conversion of native prairie grasslands to cropland has been the primary cause of the long-term decline of pintail populations and remains the single greatest threat to the pintail’s future. But recent research supported by DU has discovered that much of the pintail decline since 1980 has been caused by how agricultural lands on the prairies are managed.