Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Northern Pintail

A Northern Pintail drake and hen

     The Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) is one of our handsomest and most widespread ducks. The adult drake (male) is graced by a long tail (up to 1/4 of their body length) which gives rise to many of its common names: Pintail, Sprig, and Sprigtail. Even it's scientific name refers to Anas Latin for "duck' and acuta or "acute" for its pointed tail. This name was given to it in 1758 by Linnaeus himself. Young males and hens (females) lack the long plumes, but still have pointy tails. 
     Pintails are large, though slender ducks. Drakes can be up to 30 inches long and weigh 3lbs. Hens are smaller, rarely reaching 25 inches and 2.5lbs, a size difference that is greater than in most other ducks. Their long, thin necks and slender build gives them a graceful appearance, making them recognizable even when the tail is not present.

     The long neck comes in useful for these dabbling ducks. It allows them reach deeper than many other ducks when tipping-up for food. Though 90% of their diet is made up of seeds and grains (they love wild rice), they also eat some crustaceans, mollusks, and invertebrates. This is particularly true in the summer and by the developing young.
     Their slender appearance makes them fairly distinctive in the air and gives them a sleek look. Pintails are fast fliers, with some claims they can fly upwards of 65 miles an hour. This have given rise to other common names for them such as the "greyhounds of the air" and the "greyhounds of ducks." Like other puddle or dabbling ducks, they can take off directly into the air, needing no room to run along the surface like most diving ducks do. 
    Sprigs are also very strong fliers. Some populations regularly fly from Alaska and the West coast to overwinter in Hawaii. A leg band was recovered from a bird banded in Canada and then ended up in England 9 days later. Birds banded in Japan have been recovered in North America. They regularly overwinter in the Deep South, into the Caribbean Islands, into Central America, and have even been found as far South as Colombia. 
     Only the Mallard is more widespread in its breeding range than the Pintail. They live in North America, Europe, Asia, even in some parts of Africa. In North America, they are far more common in the West than the East. 
     Sprigs are early migrators also. Most start heading South in September with the majority of them out of our area by the end of November. They prefer fresh water, but will also congregate, sometimes in large flocks (often mixed in with other duck species) in estuaries and brackish water. 
     Interestingly, though they leave winter conditions fairly early in the season, they are also among the first to return to their Northern breeding grounds in spring. By April many are in far Northern Canada and Alaska, ready to nest as soon as the ice breaks. 

Pintail hen and drake

     Pintail hens use a shallow depression to lay their eggs, typically nesting their very first year. Though they usually build their nests within 40' of the water, they've also been known to nest farther away than the majority of other dabbling ducks, some over a mile away from a water source. They also tend to prefer more open areas to nest, occasionally nesting rather close to one another. In some areas, they nest in old stubble fields for instance.
     This preference for more exposed locations though means that they lose a fair number of nests to predation (especially to foxes, skunks, and raccoons). More over, one study in Canada showed that over half the nests were plowed up or otherwise were destroyed by agricultural practices. They are also quite susceptible to drought conditions which can cause large losses in some years.
     Since Pintail hens also tend to have smaller clutches than other dabbling ducks (6-8 eggs on average), their numbers can fluctuate greatly from one year to another. Despite their cosmopolitan nature, their numbers have declined steadily, averaging 2-3% declines yearly starting in the 1960's. That has led to a 72% reduction in their numbers from their historical records. In 2009, their breeding population was estimated to be about 3.2 million birds.
     But Pintail hens are devoted mothers. They alone incubate their clutch of gray to olive-green eggs for 22-25 days. If threatened by a predator, the mother duck will often try to distract it, feigning injury to lead it away. They will keep up the "broken wing" act for far longer than most other ducks and have been known to aggressively defend their nest if need be too. 
     The precocial young follow the mother to water soon after hatching. It normally takes them a little under 2 months to be able to fly, though they may hang out with their mother longer than that. In the far North where the days are longer to allow them to feed almost continuously, the young may mature much faster and be flying in under 5 weeks. 

It takes a while for the drakes to get to full breeding plumage. This is a first year male pintail.

     If they're lucky, they can live for quite a while. The record for the oldest North American Northern Pintail was by a drake from Saskatchewan, Canada who lived to be 22 years and 3 months according to his recovered leg band. A Pintail in Holland supposedly lived to be 27 years and 5 months. 
     I don't get a chance to see as many Pintails as I do other ducks. So I'm thrilled when see them during the Fall migration, or hear the drake's whistle or hen's quack. Sometimes I only catch a brief look at their sleek flight as these wary birds fly by, but it's always nice to see. 
Here's a short video of a small flock of Sprigs:


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