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Pintails: A Love-Hate Relationship with Spring Wetlands

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When pintails are displaced farther north, it is generally believed that their production is reduced because fewer females attempt to nest. These females may travel as far as Alaska before attempting to nest, or they may not nest and choose to spend the summer on the tundra to simply survive and wait for a better year. By traveling great distances, pintails expend a lot of energy searching for suitable areas, and thus stored fat gained on the wintering and staging areas and normally used to lay eggs gets burned up.

Because of the unique nature of pintails, spring ponds are very important in attracting hens to settle and nest in an area, as well as providing a superb food source. Because these are the first open water areas, algae blossoms and invertebrates thrive in their soup of warm water. Some spring wetlands are located in farm fields, acting as deep-freeze storage bins by preserving waste grain for the first arrivals.

Pintails, as well as other ducks and shorebirds, enjoy the feast. Many shorebirds on the way to the Arctic find these spring wetlands irresistible and gorge themselves before completing the long journey north.

Unfortunately, under improved wetland conditions in the last decade, pintail numbers have failed to increase and track spring wetland numbers as they historically had. Something has gone wrong. One reason that pintails may not have responded to increased spring wetland numbers is that the composition of spring wetlands may have changed. Historically, many more of the ephemeral and seasonal wetlands that pintails depend upon were present in the spring.

Today, the spring pond count is higher, but the ponds counted may be composed of more permanent, deeper wetlands. Furthermore, many of the ephemeral and seasonal wetlands that do remain are often cropped in dry years and are surrounded by sparse vegetation. This has lead to increased siltation and contamination of these shallow wetlands. The end result is that even when they do contain water, they are far less productive for pintails than they were historically.

If spring wetlands are removed from the landscape, pintails have little incentive to settle an in area, even in wet years. If pintails are not attracted to settle in their traditional breeding areas, it is unlikely they will recover in the Prairie Pothole Region. Only conservation and restoration on a regional scale can affect ephemeral and temporary wetlands and the birds that depend upon them.

Conservation includes restoring wetlands as well as integrating waterfowl management with farming operations by working with farmers and ranchers who make a living from the land. Proactive wetland conservation programs must be developed for the long term, especially for the ephemeral and temporary wetlands that pintails depend on. We can have all the nesting cover in the world, but without wetlands, ducks won't settle to breed.

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