My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Northern Pintail, Anas acuta

Note: this post, while published, is a work in progress, as are all posts in this series, My Photo Life List. My goal is to photograph every species of bird that is seen on a regular basis here in Michigan, working from a list compiled by the Michigan chapter of the Audubon Society. This will be a lifelong project, that I began in January of 2013, and as I shoot better photos of this, or any other species, I will update the post for that species with better photos when I can. While this series is not intended to be a field guide per se, my minimum standard for the photos in this series is that one has to be able to make a positive identification of the species in my photos. The information posted here is from either my observations or the Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, however, I have personally shot all the photos appearing in this series.

Northern Pintail, Anas acuta

The pintail or northern pintail (Anas acuta) is a duck with wide geographic distribution that breeds in the northern areas of Europe, Asia and North America. It is migratory and winters south of its breeding range to the equator. Unusually for a bird with such a large range, it has no geographical subspecies if the possibly conspecific duck Eaton’s pintail is considered to be a separate species.

This is a large duck, and the male’s long central tail feathers give rise to the species’ English and scientific names. Both sexes have blue-grey bills and grey legs and feet. The drake is more striking, having a thin white stripe running from the back of its chocolate-coloured head down its neck to its mostly white undercarriage. The drake also has attractive grey, brown, and black patterning on its back and sides. The hen’s plumage is more subtle and subdued, with drab brown feathers similar to those of other female dabbling ducks. Hens make a coarse quack and the drakes a flute-like whistle.

The northern pintail is a bird of open wetlands which nests on the ground, often some distance from water. It feeds by dabbling for plant food and adds small invertebrates to its diet during the nesting season. It is highly gregarious when not breeding, forming large mixed flocks with other species of duck. This duck’s population is affected by predators, parasites and avian diseases. Human activities, such as agriculture, hunting and fishing, have also had a significant impact on numbers. Nevertheless, owed to the huge range and large population of this species, it is not threatened globally.

The northern pintail is a fairly large duck with a wing chord of 23.6–28.2 cm (9.3–11.1 in) and wingspan of 80–95 cm (31–37 in). The male is 59–76 cm (23–30 in) in length and weighs 450–1,360 g (0.99–3.00 lb), and therefore is considerably larger than the female, which is 51–64 cm (20–25 in) long and weighs 454–1,135 g (1.001–2.502 lb). The northern pintail broadly overlaps in size with the similarly-widespread mallard, but is more slender, elongated and gracile, with a relatively longer neck and (in males) a longer tail. The unmistakable breeding plumaged male has a chocolate-brown head and white breast with a white stripe extending up the side of the neck. Its upperparts and sides are grey, but elongated grey feathers with black central stripes are draped across the back from the shoulder area. The vent area is yellow, contrasting with the black underside of the tail, which has the central feathers elongated to as much as 10 cm (3.9 in). The bill is bluish and the legs are blue-grey.

The adult female is mainly scalloped and mottled in light brown with a more uniformly grey-brown head, and its pointed tail is shorter than the male’s; it is still easily identified by its shape, long neck, and long grey bill. In non-breeding (eclipse) plumage, the drake pintail looks similar to the female, but retains the male upperwing pattern and long grey shoulder feathers. Juvenile birds resemble the female, but are less neatly scalloped and have a duller brown speculum with a narrower trailing edge.

The pintail walks well on land, and swims well. It has a very fast flight, with its wings slightly swept-back, rather than straight out from the body like other ducks. In flight, the male shows a black speculum bordered white at the rear and pale rufous at the front, whereas the female’s speculum is dark brown bordered with white, narrowly at the front edge but very prominently at the rear, being visible at a distance of 1,600 m (0.99 mi).

The male’s call is a soft proop-proop whistle, similar to that of the common teal, whereas the female has a mallard-like descending quack, and a low croak when flushed.

This dabbling duck breeds across northern areas of Eurasia south to about Poland and Mongolia, and in Canada, Alaska and the Midwestern United States. Mainly in winters south of its breeding range, reaches almost to the equator in Panama, northern sub-Saharan Africa and tropical South Asia. Small numbers migrate to Pacific islands, particularly Hawaii, where a few hundred birds winter on the main islands in shallow wetlands and flooded agricultural habitats. Transoceanic journeys also occur: a bird that was caught and ringed in Labrador, Canada, was shot by a hunter in England nine days later, and Japanese-ringed birds have been recovered from six US states east to Utah and Mississippi. In parts of the range, such as Great Britain and the northwestern United States, the pintail may be present all year.

The northern pintail’s breeding habitat is open unwooded wetlands, such as wet grassland, lakesides or tundra. In winter, it will utilise a wider range of open habitats, such as sheltered estuaries, brackish marshes and coastal lagoons. It is highly gregarious outside the breeding season and forms very large mixed flocks with other ducks.

Both sexes reach sexual maturity at one year of age. The male mates with the female by swimming close to her with his head lowered and tail raised, continually whistling. If there is a group of males, they will chase the female in flight until only one drake is left. The female prepares for copulation, which takes place in the water, by lowering her body; the male then bobs his head up and down and mounts the female, taking the feathers on the back of her head in his mouth. After mating, he raises his head and back and whistles.

Breeding takes place between April and June, with the nest being constructed on the ground and hidden amongst vegetation in a dry location, often some distance from water. It is a shallow scrape on the ground lined with plant material and down. The female lays seven to nine cream-coloured eggs at the rate of one per day; the eggs are 55 mm × 38 mm (2.2 in × 1.5 in) in size and weigh 45 g (1.6 oz), of which 7% is shell. If predators destroy the first clutch, the female can produce a replacement clutch as late as the end of July. The hen alone incubates the eggs for 22 to 24 days before they hatch. The precocial downy chicks are then led by the female to the nearest body of water, where they feed on dead insects on the water surface. The chicks fledge in 46 to 47 days after hatching, but stay with the female until she has completed molting.

Around three-quarters of chicks live long enough to fledge, but not more than half of those survive long enough to reproduce. The maximum recorded age is 27 years and 5 months for a Dutch bird.

The pintail feeds by dabbling and upending in shallow water for plant food mainly in the evening or at night, and therefore spends much of the day resting. Its long neck enables it to take food items from the bottom of water bodies up to 30 cm (12 in) deep, which are beyond the reach of other dabbling ducks like the Mallard.

The winter diet is mainly plant material including seeds and rhizomes of aquatic plants, but the pintail sometimes feeds on roots, grain and other seeds in fields, though less frequently than other Anas ducks. During the nesting season, this bird eats mainly invertebrate animals, including aquatic insects, molluscs and crustaceans.

Pintail nests and chicks are vulnerable to predation by mammals, such as foxes and badgers, and birds like gulls, crows and magpies. The adults can take flight to escape terrestrial predators, but nesting females in particular may be surprised by large carnivores such as bobcats. Large birds of prey, such as northern goshawks, will take ducks from the ground, and some falcons, including the gyrfalcon, have the speed and power to catch flying birds.

It is susceptible to a range of parasites including Cryptosporidium, Giardia, tapeworms, blood parasites and external feather lice, and is also affected by other avian diseases. It is often the dominant species in major mortality events from avian botulism and avian cholera, and can also contract avian influenza, the H5N1 strain of which is highly pathogenic and occasionally infects humans.

Pintails in North America at least have been badly affected by avian diseases, with the breeding population falling from more than 10 million in 1957 to 3.5 million by 1964. Although the species has recovered from that low point, the breeding population in 1999 was 30% below the long-term average, despite years of major efforts focused on restoring the species. In 1997, an estimated 1.5 million water birds, the majority being northern pintails, died from avian botulism during two outbreaks in Canada and Utah.

The northern pintail is a popular species for game shooting because of its speed, agility, and excellent eating qualities, and is hunted across its range. Although one of the world’s most numerous ducks, the combination of hunting with other factors has led to population declines, and local restrictions on hunting have been introduced at times to help conserve numbers.

This species’ preferred habitat of shallow water is naturally susceptible to problems such as drought or the encroachment of vegetation, but this duck’s habitat might be increasingly threatened by climate change. Populations are also affected by the conversion of wetlands and grassland to arable crops, depriving the duck of feeding and nesting areas. Spring planting means that many nests of this early breeding duck are destroyed by farming activities, and a Canadian study showed that more than half of the surveyed nests were destroyed by agricultural work such as ploughing and harrowing.

Hunting with lead shot, along with the use of lead sinkers in angling, has been identified as a major cause of lead poisoning in waterfowl, which often feed off the bottom of lakes and wetlands where the shot collects. A Spanish study showed that northern pintail and common pochard were the species with the highest levels of lead shot ingestion, higher than in northern countries of the western Palearctic flyway, where lead shot has been banned. In the United States, Canada, and many western European countries, all shot used for waterfowl must now be non-toxic, and therefore may not contain any lead.

On to my photos:

Although pintails are not rare in Michigan, getting close to one is a rarity because they are very wary of humans due to the hunting pressure that they endure during migration. In fact, pintails were one of the first species that I photographed for this project, but it has taken me almost 5 years to get a reasonably good photo of a male in full breeding plumage. These photos were shot in January of 2018 at the Muskegon County wastewater facility.

Northern pintail ducks

 

Northern pintail ducks in flight

 

Northern pintail ducks in flight

 

Male Northern pintail ducks in flight

 

Northern pintail ducks in flight

 

Northern pintail ducks

 

Northern pintail ducks

 

Northern pintail ducks

 

Northern pintail ducks

 

This is number 206 in my photo life list, only 144 to go!

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

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9 responses

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this one. You got some great shots of them!

    February 23, 2018 at 5:24 pm

    • Thank you very much Allen! It only took four or five years to get photos that good.

      February 24, 2018 at 2:06 am

      • Patience is everything!

        February 24, 2018 at 4:11 am

      • Yes it is! We each have our own type of patience though, you can spend hours going through books as you try to ID a species of plant. I spend hours attempting to get a good photo of a bird, only to be frustrated time and time again as the bird flies away just before I get the shot I wanted. I wish that I had more of your type of patience.

        February 24, 2018 at 10:14 am

  2. Such a neat, tidy, smart and pretty duck shown off with excellence by your wonderful photos. The photos all have a charm about them and they all somehow tell a story. This set of photos is special.

    February 24, 2018 at 8:27 am

    • Thank you very much Marianne! Maybe I did tell a story by accident, while ducks are all similar other than their appearance at first glance, the behavior of each species can be quite different. Mallards are loud and boisterous, while the pintails seem much more refined in their behavior.

      February 24, 2018 at 10:07 am

      • You can tell that they are lovely ducks. All lined up in a straight line or in a group of three in the water and synchronised flying too- just perfect for a photo!

        February 24, 2018 at 2:31 pm

  3. Hi Jerry! These seem distinctive enough that I should be able to id a pintail if I see one, especially in flight. The description of their mating/copulation behavior made me smile.

    Hope your spring-like weather is hanging on. Winter really grinds on your soul around this time of the year, doesn’t it?

    February 24, 2018 at 9:13 am

    • Thank you very much Judy! There’s another species of duck that has a long tail as well, aptly named the long-tailed duck. They were formerly known as old squaw ducks, however, they are easy to tell from a pintail as pintails are the size of a mallard, and long-tailed ducks are half that size.

      February 24, 2018 at 10:10 am