The pintail, or northern pintail, (Anas acuta) is commonly considered the most elegant and graceful of all waterfowl. Due to its slim appearance and swift flight, the pintail is often referred to as “the greyhound of the air.” Other common names for the pintail include spike, spike tail, and sprig. Found in all four flyways, the pintail is more common in the Pacific and Central flyways than the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways.
Identifying a pintail is relatively easy due to its slim body and long neck and of course, the long, pointed tail feather. However, distinguishing between the hen and drake is made even simpler due to the dramatic sexual dimorphism in the pintail. Both sexes have grey legs and feet and blue-grey bills. The hen’s plumage is subtle and subdued with no distinctive patterning present in her brown, mottled feathers. The drake, however, has a striking appearance. The drake has a thin, white stripe running from the back of its rich, chocolate-colored head down its neck into its mostly white undercarriage. These already impressive features are further complimented by the gorgeous grey, brown, and black plumage coloring its back and sides. Also, the male’s tail is longer than that of the female.
The pintail is one of the first ducks to migrate south in the fall and one of the first to migrate north in the spring. Winter migration starts in late August and can carry into early October. The pintail starts its journey back north, often before the ice and snow have melted from their nest areas. This migration is usually late January through March.
Both sexes reach sexual maturity at one year of age. Mating consists of the male swimming close to the female’s head with his head lowered and tail raised, while belting out a continuous whistle. If the males outnumber the females, they will chase the female in flight until only one drake remains.
Breeding is between April and June. The female typically lays anywhere from 6 to 12, pale-olive eggs at a rate of one egg per day. The hen is solely responsible for incubation which takes place between 21 to 25 days before they hatch. Within a few hours after hatching, the hen leads her chicks to the nearest body of water where they feed themselves. The chicks are capable of flight at 38 to 52 days after hatching but will stay with the female until she has completed molting.
The pintail feeds on mostly seeds and insects. Their winter diet consists mostly of plant materials while their diet during nesting season is comprised of mostly insects, mollusks, and crustaceans. They have also been known to eat tadpoles and small fish.
Pintail nests and chicks are vulnerable to predators such as foxes, badgers, crows, and badgers, to name a few. Unfortunately, predators are not the only threat they face. Pintails are also susceptible to a variety of parasites and avian diseases.
James L. Cummins is executive director of Wildlife Mississippi, a non-profit, conservation organization founded to conserve, restore, and enhance fish, wildlife, and plant resources throughout Mississippi. Their website is www.wildlifemiss.org.