The Pintail (Anas acuta) is a widely occurring duck which breeds in the northern areas of Europe, Asia and North America. It is strongly migratory and winters south of its breeding range to the equator.
This is a fairly large duck, with a long pointed tail that gives rise to the species' English and scientific names. The male has a very distinctive brown, grey and white appearance, whereas the female has mainly light brown plumage and a shorter tail. The male's call is a mellow whistle, whereas the female quacks like a Mallard.
The 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, this species' huge range and large population mean that it is not threatened globally.
The Pintail is a fairly large duck with a wingspan of 23.6–28.2 centimetres (9.3–11.1 in). The male is 59–76 centimetres (23–30 in) in length and weighs 450–1360 grammes (1–3 lb), and therefore is considerably larger than the female, which is 51–64 centimetres (20–25 in) long and weighs 454–1135 grammes (1–2.5 lb). The male in breeding plumage 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 centimetres (4 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 buoyantly. 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 1600 metres (1 mi).
The male's call is a soft proop-proop whistle, similar to that of the Teal, whereas the female has a Mallard-like descending quack, and a low croak when flushed.
Distribution and habitatEdit
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 courts 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 x 38 millimetres (2.2 x 1.5 in) in size and weigh 45 grammes (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 moulting.
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, but the average life span for wild birds will be much shorter than this, and is likely to be similar to that of other wild ducks, such as the Mallard, at about two years.
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 centimetres (1 ft) 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.