Widespread in the Northern Hemisphere, Northern Pintails are distinctive migratory waterfowl. Drakes in breeding plumage are particularly attractive, although the drabber females and non-breeding males are still identifiable by their long necks and graceful form.
The Northern Pintail is an attractive wildfowl species, most easily identified by its long neck, pointed tail and wings, and characteristic hunched back in flight. They are a sexually dimorphic species, and males (drakes) have separate breeding and non-breeding plumages, both of which are distinct from females (hens).
Males in breeding plumage have a chocolate brown head and white plumage on the belly and neck, extending as a narrow stripe up to the back of the head. Their long black tail contrasts with a yellowish rump. Resting birds show gray upper parts and flanks with black streaks on the wings and back, and flying birds show a green speculum (wing bar).
Non-breeding drakes in eclipse plumage are relatively dull, with a gray-brown body and a paler breast. Their tail is still pointed, although much shorter, and they have gray bills and legs.
Pintail hens look similar to summer plumage males but have warmer brown plumage with a heavily mottled body. The head and neck are a paler buff shade, and they show bronzey brown speculums with white trailing edges in flight. Their bill and legs are dark gray.
Pintail ducklings have dark downy feathers with whitish stripes on their sides. Their face is pale, with a dark line through each eye and a dark crown. Later in the summer and fall/autumn, juveniles appear similar to adult females but have darker crowns and less mottling on the flanks and upper parts. The speculum is duller brown and has a smaller white edge.
Pintail female (left) and male (right) in natural habitat
Pintails are large dabbling ducks, longer but with a lighter build than the Mallard.
Most adult Pintails measure 20 to 27½ inches or 50 to 70 centimeters long.
Males are the heavier sex at 28 to 44 ounces or 790 to 1250 grams. Females weigh 22 to 37 ounces or 620 to 1050 grams.
Typical wingspans range between 31½ and 37 inches or 80 to 95 centimeters.
Pintail in-flight over reservoir
Pintails are vocal throughout the year. Hens produce soft single or stuttered ‘kuk’ quacks and loud crow-like ‘gaak’ alarm calls. Males have a short whistled call, reminiscent of a steam train.
Pintail standing by the lakeside
Pintails are adaptable, omnivorous waterfowl that vary their diet throughout the year. Aquatic plants, grain, tubers, and algae are major food sources, although insects and other animal foods make up as much as half of their summer diet.
Pintails often visit arable farmland at night to feed on rice, corn, and wheat. They can also use their bill to dig out potatoes and other underground plant material. On the water, they feed by filtering at the surface, up-ending, or diving down to collect food from the bottom.
Pintail ducklings feed themselves without any help from their parents. They feed primarily on insect larvae at first, gradually including grass seeds and other plant material as they mature.
Female Pintail feeding along the waters edge
Pintails prefer shallow (4 - 12 inches / 10 - 30 cm), nutrient-rich wetlands, although they visit a variety of water bodies, including rivers, lakes, seasonal ponds, estuaries, and saltwater lagoons. They also forage in flooded grasslands and dry grain fields.
Pintails occur on five of the world’s seven continents, absent only from Australia and Antarctica. They are largely confined to the Northern Hemisphere in North America, Europe, and Asia. However, they reach their southern limits in equatorial Africa and South America in the non-breeding season.
Pintails live in shallow water habitats and open fields. These waterfowl are quite comfortable on land and walk and run with ease. Like most ducks, they are fast and agile in flight, and they swim well, diving under the water for several seconds to feed or escape predators.
Pintails can be very common in suitable habitats, although these migratory wildfowl may be absent for many months of the year. They have a large world population, estimated at 7.1 to 7.2 million individuals.
Female Pintail preening herself on the lake
Pintails can turn up practically anywhere in the United States, including Hawaii. They breed in Alaska and the Great Plains of the West and Midwest, particularly in the Prairie Potholes Region. Isolated breeding populations occur as far as southern California, although Pintails are mainly winter visitors to the southern half of the Lower 48. Central California and the Gulf Coast are major wintering areas.
Pintails are widespread in Canada, breeding across most of the western and central regions but more localized in the east. They are most numerous in the Prairie Pothole Region of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.
Pintails are widespread winter visitors to the United Kingdom, especially in major estuaries and sheltered coastal wetlands. They are most numerous in Lancashire and Wales’s north and south coasts. Birdwatchers might spot Pintails from the rare and localized breeding populations in East Anglia and western Scotland in the spring and summer.
Pintail walking in natural habitat
Pintails can live for over 20 years in the wild. The oldest known North American specimen lived for 21 years and four months, while in the Old World, the record stands at 15 years and 11 months for a bird banded in the United Kingdom.
Pintails are prey for many predatory birds and mammals, particularly when hens are incubating their eggs. The following species are known Pintail predators:
Pintails are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the United States, the Migratory Birds Convention Act in Canada, and the Wildlife and Countryside Act in the United Kingdom.
Pintails are a ‘Least Concern’ species on the IUCN Red List. However, they are in decline, and their numbers have dropped considerably (77%) in North America over the last four decades. United Kingdom numbers have also decreased by about a quarter in recent times.
Pintails nest on the ground among vegetation in open habitats up to about 1.8 miles or 3 kilometers from water. The nest is a scrape, made by the female and lined with down feathers and soft vegetation found nearby.
Most populations nest in the north of their range, as far as Alaska, Iceland, and Siberia, although some breed at much lower latitudes in California, Central Europe, and the Middle East.
Pintails nest early, beginning nest construction just days before females lay their eggs in April or May. Pairs break up around this time, and the female incubates alone for three weeks or a little longer. Pintail ducklings leave the nest within a day after hatching but remain with their mother for four to six weeks.
Females lay a single clutch of 3 to 12 pale grayish, greenish, or buff-colored eggs, each measuring about 54 millimeters long and 38 millimeters wide.
Pintails form monogamous pairs in the fall/autumn or winter that last just one breeding season. Males separate from females after egg-laying is complete.
Pintail female (left) and male (right) during the breeding season
Pintails are passive, gregarious waterfowl that rarely fight. They are non-territorial, and pairs may nest within a few yards of each other.
Pintails forage during the day and night, although they usually feed on land after dark. They sleep on open water.
Pintail resting on the water
Pintails are annual migrants that move between spring and summer nesting grounds in the north and overwintering grounds in the south. Far northern nesters may migrate several thousand miles, while southern populations are short-distance migrants, and some are sedentary.
These birds are capable of impressive long-distance flights, even crossing the Pacific Ocean to overwinter in Hawaii, far from the North American and Asian mainland. Flocks migrate at night, traveling at speeds of nearly 50 miles an hour and covering as much as 1800 miles non-stop.
Pintails find ideal nesting grounds in the prairies, tundra, and other open areas with short vegetation and shallow waterbodies. These habitats are unsuitable in the winter when open water freezes to ice and snow blankets the ground, covering food sources. They depart in the fall/autumn after nesting and molting and head to coastal areas and lower latitudes with milder winters, where they can find food and suitable habitats until the following spring.
Pintails are native to North America. These birds nest from Alaska to the Upper- Midwest and overwinter from the south of the Lower 48 to Central America.
Pintails are native to the United Kingdom. Most of the 20,000-strong population are winter visitors, although small numbers stay to breed.
Flock of Pintails in-flight over the lake
Pintails are named for their long, pointed tails. Breeding males, in particular, grow distinctive black central tail feathers up to about 8⅔ inches or 22 centimeters long.
At first impression, female Gadwalls and Pintails appear very similar. However, there are three identifying features that birdwatchers can look for to separate these wildfowl. The Pintail hen has a blackish bill and a longer neck than the Gadwall hen. Female Gadwalls differ by having orange bills and white wing patches.
Family:Ducks, geese and swans
50cm to 70cm
80cm to 95cm
700g to 900g
The Eurasian wigeon is a medium dabbling duck that commonly breeds across northern Europe, and winters further south, including in the British Isles and occasionally in North America. Rare vagrant breeding pairs can be found in the United States, and small breeding grounds have also been established in northern England and Scotland.
This large bird arrives on our shores from Iceland to overwinter in late September, returning northwards to breed from mid March onwards.
Greater White-Fronted Goose
One of several similar wildfowl species in the Anser genus, Greater White-fronted Geese live up to their name with a distinctive white patch on the front of their face. The species is extremely widespread, although there are several sub-species, each with different breeding and overwintering ranges.
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Tundra Bean Goose
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The Tufted Duck is the UK’s most common diving duck and a familiar sight on lakes and ponds across the country. Known for their long, hair-like tufts, these small waterfowl are fairly easy to identify but may be confused with other ducks from the Aythya genus.
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Taiga Bean Goose
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Despite being only a rare winter visitor to the British Isles, the Smew is one of the countrys most unmistakable and easily identified duck species. Breeding across Central Asia and returning to Western Europe during winter months, smews begin to turn up on inland lakes as well as in coastal regions from November onwards.
One look at the bill of a northern shoveler should be enough to provide you with an accurate species identification: their flattened shovel-like bills are unique among waterfowl and allow them to feed on tiny plankton by sweeping their heads across the water’s surface.
A large colourful duck, often found in coastal areas, the shelduck, is an established breeding waterbird in the UK. British wetlands are also a major wintering ground for the species, hosting up to 30 percent of Europe’s shelduck population each autumn.
A medium-sized diving duck, the greater scaup is known simply as the scaup in Europe, and locally as the ‘bluebill’ in North America. Only a handful of scaup breed in the UK, making it the rarest breeding duck in the British Isles.
A striking and fascinating little diving duck with an unusual courtship display, the Ruddy Duck is a widespread migrant in North America.
Colourful and instantly recognisable diving ducks, red-crested pochards are present in the UK in small numbers, believed to have initially been introduced into the wild from private wildfowl collections. Some breeding does occur in Britain, although the best chance of a sighting comes with the arrival of several hundred migrants each winter.
A speedy migratory wildfowl with a hardcore hairstyle, the Red-breasted Merganser is widespread in coastal and estuarine habitats across the Northern Hemisphere.
During the winter the population of this rare resident breeding duck increases by 55 times to that of the summer, with the influx of many thousands of others overwintering, having arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe.
Although the pink-footed goose does not breed in Britain, it is a common winter visitor, with over half a million migrating individuals arriving each autumn from breeding grounds in Iceland, Greenland and Norway’s Svalbard peninsula.
One of the world’s heaviest flying birds, and one of the most beautiful too, the Mute Swan is a majestic waterfowl with a mean reputation.
Sightings of wild Mandarin Ducks in the United States cause quite a stir, and it’s easy to see why. These small but eye-catching waterfowl are, in fact, native to the Far East of Asia, although their popularity as an ornamental species has resulted in their introduction to many parts of the world, including the United Kingdom.
Instantly recognizable, the Mallard is a medium-sized dabbling duck that is familiar to people all over the world. These adaptable waterfowl are the ancestor of the modern domestic duck and are found everywhere from remote wilderness lakes to suburban backyards.
One of the most distinctive duck breeds, thanks to their extended streaming tail feathers, the long-tailed duck is a coastal waterbird that spends winters at sea, foraging for crustaceans in marine waters, after breeding on Arctic tundra landscapes.
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The Gargeney is a dabbling duck, slightly smaller than a mallard, and considered a rare breeder in the UK, with just over 100 pairs recorded. A fully migratory species, all garganeys spend winters in southern Africa, leaving breeding grounds as early as July, so your window for spotting one on British waters is only a very brief one.
The Gadwall is a widely distributed dabbling duck of the Anatidae family that breeds in the Northern Hemisphere. This hardy duck breeds as far north as Siberia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and coastal Alaska and is found across both the Americas, Europe, and Asia.
The common eider (Somateria mollissima) is a large and widespread sea duck that is perhaps best known for its valuable insulating down feathers.
Regarded as being sacred by early Egyptians, this native goose of the African continent was introduced into Europe and elsewhere as an ornamental wildfowl species in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century.
The word scoter is often used to define northern sea ducks. There are six different species of scoter, all of which are monotypic and three of which are confined to North America. The Common Scoter like the Velvet Scoter can only be found in Europe and Asia whilst the Stejneger’s Scoter is a native of Asia alone.
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A small goose species with a short, stubby bill, the brent goose (or brant, as it is known in North America), breeds in the high Arctic regions of Canada, Greenland, Siberian Russia and northern Europe’s Arctic islands. Brant spend winters along North America’s Pacific coast, part of the east coast of the US, and in north-western Europe, from the British Isles to Denmark.
A subspecies of the North American tundra swan, Bewick’s swans breed in Siberia and arrive in the UK each autumn. Worrying declines have been observed in the European population in recent years, and today only around 4,350 individuals migrate to the UK each winter.
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