ALL HAIL THE NORTHERN PINTAIL
By Ben Long
All wild ducks are beautiful but for my money, the
most beautiful is the Northern Pintail. They have a
combination of aerial grace, striking plumage, heft and
old-fashioned class. They are ducks with elan.
There are some 35 species of ducks in North America,
many of which find their way to the Flathead Valley.
Pintails are early spring migrants in the Flathead;
during that period, they can far outnumber Mallards.
Later in the spring, they are much less common, and are
present in small numbers throughout the rest of the
year, even into winter.
The Pintailís name comes from the trademark tail
feathers of the drake during breeding season ó they
protrude from the posterior like an arrow, giving the
drake a streamlined look in flight. The other telltale
feature is the drakeís head, which is a rich
reddish-brown, with a white, question mark-shaped stripe
running down the back of its head and neck to the white
breast and belly. Male pintails have an unusual blue
stripe on the bill during breeding season.
(Hereís a good tip. When trying to identify waterfowl or
any other bird, take special note of where it is white.
This can be quite distinctive and diagnostic.)
True to fashion in the bird world, males are flashy and
females are plain. The males are flashy to attract
mates; the females plan to hide on the nest. They nest
on islands and shore near big marshy waters.
Like Mallards, Pintails are dabblers ó finding small
aquatic plants and organisms on the surface and shallows
of marshes and ponds. They also eat waste grain in
stubble fields. Pintails are about the same size as a
mallard, which is medium sized for a duck, but more
tapered in form and graceful in flight.
Pintails are highly
gregarious and acrobatic and when flying in groups, they
bring to mind the precise piloting of fighter plane
squadrons. Some of the best shows of Northern Pintails
Iíve seen have been at Freezout Lakes Waterfowl
Production Area, but Iíve seen them at marshy water
bodies such as Smith Lake, the sloughs along the main
stem of the Flathead River and in the potholes of the
Pintails are found year round in western Montana, and
found in eastern Montana mostly in the summer. They nest
in the wetlands across Montana, but at relatively low
I was surprised to learn that Pintails are a global
species. They summer all over the northern hemisphere,
from Montana across the Canadian Shield and to Siberia.
They winter as far south as Panama, India and Southeast
Asia. European birds that summer in Scandinavia fly over
the Sahara Desert and winter in central Africa. Itís fun
to imagine these birds resting mid-migration in some
oasis, amid camels and sand dunes.
Pintails donít just migrate North-South, but
horizontally as well. Migrant Northern Pintails banded
in Japan have shown up in Utah and Mississippi; birds
banded in eastern Canada have been found in England a
few days later.
Pintails are popular targets for hunters, providing
sporty shooting and good eating. Another common predator
of the Pintail is the skunk, which tends to raid nests.
Studies at Freezout show that pairs that nest on islands
have better luck surviving skunks than pairs that nest
There are estimated to be about 3 million Northern
Pintails in North America. They seem to have declined
markedly from the 1950s. Much of that decline is blamed
on avian diseases. Happily, the great range and
relatively large numbers of the Northern Pintail
worldwide help keep its numbers relatively strong, as it
shares the planet with 7 billion hungry human beings.
(Sources: Montana Fish,
Wildlife & Parks, US Fish & Wildlife Service and Ducks