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Duck of the Month - Northern Pintail

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(Anas acuta)

May 4, 2007 - One of the world’s most elegant ducks, the northern pintail is also one of the most numerous. In North America, pintails have a larger breeding distribution than any other duck except the mallard. No dabbling duck frequents the Arctic regions more often than this slender bird.

Pintails are graceful and swift flyers, and often plummet from great heights. They walk easily and are comfortable on land. Although the drake pintail is three to four inches longer than a mallard drake, he weighs 20 percent less. The two long, black, central tail feathers on the drake in breeding plumage amount to one fourth of his total length. It also accounts for his nickname “sprig.”

Pintails of both sexes have longer, narrower wings than other dabblers, as well as longer necks, adding to their graceful appearance. The female wears the cryptic tan and brown colors of other dabbling duck hens, while the male has a striking chocolate brown head and a white underbody that extends stripe-like nearly to the eye.

The bill of the drake is bright blue and black while the hens are blue-gray mottled with black. The feet of both sexes are grey. The hen pintail’s speculum is a non-iridescent brown or brown green, while the male’s is metallic green or green-black. The speculum of both sexes has a trailing edge of white.

Hens have a coarser quack than a mallard, while the drake whistles.

Pintails nest across a broad section of North America, with the highest concentrations in the Prairie Pothole and prairie parkland regions, followed by the Arctic. Significant numbers nest in Alaska. The pintail is an early nester. Most have begun nesting by mid-May.

Numbers by region fluctuate more widely than other dabblers, depending on water conditions. In drought years on the prairie, 40-60 percent of all breeding pintails will move to Alaska. In normal years, about 20-25 percent would breed there. Some will even continue on to Siberia. This tendency to over fly the prairies when they are dry is stronger in pintails than any other ducks.

At its greatest recorded number, the pintail breeding population once totaled more than 10 million. The abundance of northern pintails (Anas acuta; 3.4 ± 0.2 million) in 2006 was 32 percent greater than in 2005, yet still 18 percent below the 1955-2005 long-term average.

Through sound partnerships and leading-edge science, Ducks Unlimited is unraveling the mystery of the pintail's decline. The most devastating impact on pintail populations is the conversion of native prairie to croplands. During the past century, more than 75 percent of the Prairie Pothole Region’s original grasslands were destroyed.

The Pintail Conservation Initiative, part of DU’s Wetlands For Tomorrow campaign to raise $1.7 billion for wetland habitat and waterfowl conservation is designed to help change the plight of pintails.

 

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