Northward, ever northward, clearly indicated on the distant sky, points the long slim figure of the pintail, in the vanguard of the spring migration, wending its way toward remote and still frozen shores.
–Arthur Cleveland Bent

Northern Pintails. Photo by Jeff Beane

To read more profiles on the Birds of Ocracoke, click here

By Peter Vankevich

If one could use the word elegant to describe a waterfowl, then the Northern Pintail would be one of the first to come to mind.

These are slender ducks with narrow wings and long thin tail feathers for which they are named.

Males, or drakes, have a rich brown head, blackish-gray back, black rump and tail, white breast and are most easily identified by a prominent white stripe on the neck.

With poster-level good looks, the drake is the featured duck of the 2022 Ocracoke Wildlife Festival from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, April 23, at the Berkley Barn.

One of the most numerous wintering ducks in eastern North Carolina, the Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) can be found in both brackish and freshwater ponds and impoundments and open waters of the sounds.

Wildlife refuges such as Pea Island, Mattamuskeet and Alligator River are good locations to see them, sometimes in large feeding flocks.

Arriving in October to spend the winter, they will depart by March and are one of the earliest nesting ducks.

Northern Pintails in flight. Photo by Peter Vankevich

In North America, they have an extensive nesting range from Labrador west to Alaska and are especially prevalent in the Great Plains. Circumpolar in distribution, they can be found in northern Europe and Asia and are second in numbers worldwide to the ubiquitous Mallard.

As with many bird species, in contrast to colorful males, females are often drab in appearance in order to conceal themselves when nesting. Such is the case with the pintail. The hen has a mottled brown-and-black body, tan head and neck and a dark gray bill. Males do not help with incubation.

The hens build nests on the ground, often far from water, laying 6 to 12 greenish-buff eggs. For the most part, nesting takes place in late April and early May, and it takes up to 30 days for the birds to lay and incubate their eggs. All ducklings hatch on the same day. Hatchlings are precocial, i.e., they are born with open eyes, have a well-developed down cover, and can leave the nest within a day or two after hatching — then following the mother hen to water fledging six to eight weeks later.

Pintails are dabbling ducks – not divers, submerging only their head and neck when foraging. Their sustenance is mostly grains such as wild rice and subaquatic vegetation in fall and winter, and lots of invertebrates during the breeding season.

Males make a series of buzzy whistle sounds and females have a quack similar to a Mallard.

The Ocracoke Island Christmas Bird Count, held annually since 1981, normally reports pintail numbers in the low hundreds. The highest number was in 2020 with 5,000 individuals. Most of these ducks were observed in the sound.

The Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge is a major wintering grounds for the pintail. In 2017, the Mattamuskeet count reported 113,521 individuals and in 2019 it tallied the highest number of pintails for all of the Christmas Bird Counts with 19,559.

Best time to see: Early fall into early March.

Where: Can flock in large numbers in the sound. Also, in small ponds on the island; less likely in the ocean. On the Outer Banks, Pea Island Wildlife Refuge is a better location to see them. Other regional hot spots for close views are the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on the Albemarle Peninsula and the Mattamuskeet/Pungo lake areas on the mainland.

Listen: The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a variety of recordings. To listen to a variety of calls, click here

Birds of the Outer Banks

Pintail Duckling looking pleasant, published in the Condor, 1909

Waterfowl crossbreed more often than any other family of birds. According to Ducks Unlimited, more than 400 hybrid combinations among waterfowl species have been documented. In North America, one of the most common wild hybrids results from mallard/pintail interbreeding.

Although a 2013 North American population estimate of 3.3 million pintails may sound like a lot, it is a significant decline from an estimated 6 million birds in the early 1970s. There is some good news, as the population has stabilized and appears to be slowly increasing thanks to a host of their supporters.

Increasing the pintail population is the goal of conservation measures spearheaded by the U..S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Canadian Wildlife Service and other federal, state, and provincial conservation agencies and private organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and California Waterfowl Association.

These groups have their work cut out for them.

Habitat restoration, especially of wetlands  and enhancement of agricultural lands like the promotion of fall-seeded crops (winter wheat, fall rye), as well as prudent harvest management especially in the Midwest Prairie Pothole Region and in wintering regions of California, the Gulf Coast, and Mexico are reasons for the increase in numbers.

However, unpredictable habitat conditions or severe weather events, especially for early nesters like pintails can mean a substantial annual variation in the number of ducklings that successfully fledge.  

Nest site selection is another challenge. Many bird species are known to return to the place where they nested the previous year, a practice known as philopatry, but pintails are different in this regard. Leaving their wintering grounds, they seek out breeding locations that appear to have favorable spring wetland conditions. When the Prairie Pothole Region of the Midwest, their most important area of their extensive nesting range, is relatively dry in the spring, these ducks will head further north to the boreal wetlands of Canada and Alaska. Research has shown that the nesting success in these years is much lower.

Another challenge is that pintails are not especially particular in selecting a nesting site, sometimes choosing crop fields, which may be tilled over by spring cultivation that typically occurs during May and early June before the ducklings hatch.

I don’t normally do a plug for conservation organizations, though I often refer to their good work in these Birds of Ocracoke features.

This time I will. Ducks Unlimited has been instrumental improving habitat, especially nesting areas for waterfowl since 1937.  They have helped conserve about 15 million acres of waterfowl habitat in North America. The nonprofit organization partners with a wide range of corporations, governments, other non-governmental organizations, landowners, and private citizens to restore and manage areas that have been degraded and to prevent further degradation of existing wetlands. Additionally, many other species, aside from waterfowl, have benefited from their efforts.

To learn more about their work, check out their website at www.ducks.org.