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 Pintail’s name comes from the trademark tail feathers of the drake during breeding season — they protrude from the posterior like an arrow, giving the drake a streamlined look in flight. The other telltale feature is the drake’s 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.
(Here’s 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 — 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 I’ve seen have been at Freezout Lakes Waterfowl Production Area, but I’ve 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 Mission Valley.
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 densities.
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. It’s fun to imagine these birds resting mid-migration in some oasis, amid camels and sand dunes.
Pintails don’t 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 on shore.
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 Unlimited.)