Anas acuta

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.



Female Pintail

Female Pintail

Pintail swimming on the river

Pintail swimming on the river

Female Pintail with her ducklings

Female Pintail with her ducklings

Appearance & Identification

What do Pintails look like?

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

Pintail female (left) and male (right) in natural habitat

How big are Pintails?

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

Pintail in-flight over reservoir

Calls & Sounds

What sound does a Pintail make?

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

Pintail standing by the lakeside


What do Pintails eat?

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.

What do Pintail chicks eat?

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

Female Pintail feeding along the waters edge

Habitat & Distribution

What is the habitat of a Pintail?

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.

What is the range of a Pintail?

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.

Where do Pintails live?

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.

How rare are Pintails?

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

Female Pintail preening herself on the lake

Where can you see Pintails in the US?

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.

Where can you see Pintails in Canada?

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.

Where can you see Pintails in the UK?

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

Pintail walking in natural habitat

Lifespan & Predation

How long do Pintails live?

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.

What are the predators of Pintails?

Pintails are prey for many predatory birds and mammals, particularly when hens are incubating their eggs. The following species are known Pintail predators:

  • Canids like Coyotes, Red Foxes, and Arctic Foxes
  • Mink
  • Skunks
  • Raccoons
  • Great-horned Owl
  • Peregrine Falcon
  • Various Hawks, Gulls, Jaegers/Skuas, and Ravens

Are Pintails protected?

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.

Are Pintails endangered?

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.

Pintail in-flight

Pintail in-flight

Nesting & Breeding

Where do Pintails nest?

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.

When do Pintails nest?

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.

What do Pintail eggs look like?

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.

Do Pintails mate for life?

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

Pintail female (left) and male (right) during the breeding season


Are Pintails aggressive?

Pintails are passive, gregarious waterfowl that rarely fight. They are non-territorial, and pairs may nest within a few yards of each other.

Where do Pintails sleep at night?

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

Pintail resting on the water


Do Pintails migrate?

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.

Why do Pintails migrate?

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.

Are Pintails native to North America?

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.

Are Pintails native to the UK?

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

Flock of Pintails in-flight over the lake


Why are they called Pintails?

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.

What is the difference between a Gadwall hen and a Pintail hen?

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.

Enjoyed this content? Share it now

Quick Facts


Scientific name:

Anas acuta

Other names:

Northern Pintail


Ducks, geese and swans

Conservation status:




50cm to 70cm


80cm to 95cm


700g to 900g

Learn more about the Pintail

Other birds in the Ducks, geese and swans family

Get the best of Birdfact

Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.

Your information will be used in accordance with Birdfact's privacy policy. You may opt out at any time.

© 2024 - Birdfact. All rights reserved. No part of this site may be reproduced without our written permission.