Northern Pintails (called “sprigs” by hunters) are truly elegant members of the dabbling duck family. The profile of both the male and the female is so distinctive that it is almost impossible to mistake the bird for any other species. Their main coloration is striking with the male having a white breast and a finger of white going up the long thin neck into a chocolate-brown head. They are 20 – 30 inches in length with the drake’s tail long and thin and about one-quarter of the bird’s length. Females are a mottled brown possessing a shorter tail but with the same thin stately neck. Further coloration includes a grey beak, grayish back and sides and a white flank area at the rear. The speculum (usually only seen in flight) is green on the male (with a touch of rust) and brown on the female.
Pintails wingspan is about three feet and the wings are “gull like”, long and narrow allowing the birds to fly rapidly (up to 65 miles per hour; nicknamed Greyhounds of the Air). They will frequently drop zigzagging from on high when they spot a pond or lake and level off just before they touch down upon the water. (When landing they lose altitude rapidly and often hit utility wires and fences when on their nesting territory.)
Pintail pairs are generally formed on their wintering grounds. Courtship has the males posturing for the females by raising tails in the air and performing a “hiccup” move with the neck. It is quite common to see this behavior on Long Island, where many Pintails spend the winter months.
Pintails are some of the earliest arrivals (late March) on their breeding grounds in the tundra and prairie areas of Canada. Nests are scrapes in the ground with some vegetation and down added. Nests can be up to a mile from fresh water and very susceptible to predation. Six to eight eggs are laid with the hen doing the incubation. (Unlike other ducks, the male Pintail will remain with the female until the eggs are hatched.) If the nest is threatened the hen will either go directly at the intruder or feign injury to lead the predator away from the nest. Incubation is about twenty-four days and the young fledge in seven to eight weeks. Once all the eggs have hatched the hen leads the ducklings to a pond where they feed on small aquatic animals. As they grow their diet changes to 90% seeds and grain.
Due to their long necks, Pintails are able to forage in deeper water than many of the other dabbling ducks. They will also forage on land and can be found grazing in open fields. They are quite comfortable on land, and will often come out of the water during rest periods.
Summer migration begins with the drakes traveling on “molt migrations” where in July and August their plumage changes to be more like the hens. They are flightless for about a month. The hens begin their molts just after the young have fledged.
Many Pintails migrate through California’s Central Valley south as well as through the Central and Mississippi flyways to the Gulf Coast and Mexico. Some birds migrate to the East Coast, with the drakes in flocks first; the hens and young following later.
Historically Pintails were one of the most numerous of ducks in the world. However, with loss of habitat and ingestion of lead-shot their numbers have dropped, especially since the 1960’s. Droughts on the northern plains also reduce nesting success.
Some places to see pintails in our area are the ponds along Roe Boulevard in Patchogue; also, on Swan Lake in Patchogue and at Maratooka Lake in Mattituck. The birds tend to return to the same wintering grounds and lakes every year.
More photos on pages 2 and 3