Among the most handsome of all ducks, the northern pintail (Anas acuta) is recognised by its slender build, long, elegant neck and elongated, spiky central tail feathers, a feature that gives rise to its common name (3) (4). A graceful waterbird with long, narrow wings, during the breeding season the male northern pintail has a chocolate-brown head, white underparts and a white neck, with a thin, white line extending up the back of the neck, and a long, black tail bordered by yellowish-tan patches. The upper back and sides are grey, the lower back feathers are black with pale edges, and the rear of the wing is bronzy-greenish, with a black band and white rear edge. The eyes are dark brown and the legs are grey (5). At other times of the year, the male northern pintail has duller, brownish plumage, with fine, dark streaks on the neck and broad, dark barring on the upperparts. The female northern pintail lacks the colourful plumage of the male, with largely brown upperparts, a tan crown and face, whitish underparts, and a bronzy-greenish band on the rear of the wing, as well as bluish-grey legs and a dull black bill (5).
Walking or running with a slight waddle, the northern pintail is actually quite agile on land, but is most graceful and acrobatic in flight. It is able to achieve great speeds while flying, earning the species the nickname ‘greyhound of the air’ (3) (6). The northern pintail is a rather quiet bird, but the male may emit a mellow, whistled “kwee” or “kwee-hee”, while the female produces a hoarse, muffled “quack” (6).
- Also known as
- common pintail, common pintail duck, Holarctic northern pintail, pintail.
- Canard pilet.
- Length: 50 - 65 cm (2)
- Wingspan: 80 - 95 cm (2)
- c. 850 g (2)
Northern pintail biology
Omnivorous and opportunistic, the northern pintail has a varied diet that includes algae, seeds, tubers and grasses, as well as aquatic insects, amphibians and small fish. It typically feeds at night, with food either picked from the ground while walking in shallow water or at the water’s edge, or while swimming, often by upending or diving to reach submerged plants (3) (5) (9).
Among the earliest nesting ducks, the northern pintail typical breeds from April to June. It nests in either solitary pairs or loose groups, and tends to construct its nest further away from water than most other duck species. The nest is a slight hollow on the ground, lined with grass and down, amongst dense vegetation or under a bush (3) (5) (9). Usually 7 to 9 eggs are laid, and are incubated for around 22 to 24 days (2).
The male northern pintail tends to leave the breeding areas before the female to gather in large, single-sex flocks at moulting sites, where the birds undergo a four week flightless period to shed their feathers. The birds then undertake extensive migrations, beginning from May to June, residing at the wintering grounds from mid-August onwards (9).
Northern pintail range
A migratory species, the northern pintail breeds from Alaska and the central Canadian Arctic across Greenland, Iceland and Scandinavia to Kamchatka, Russia, and south to the western and central United States, the United Kingdom, Central Europe and the Caspian Sea. It winters at more southern locations, including north and east Africa, southern Europe, South and Central America, southern Asia, and some Micronesian islands (3) (4) (6) (7).
Species with a similar range
Northern pintail habitat
The northern pintail breeds on open, lowland moors, marshes and grasslands around freshwater, brackish or salty lakes, rivers, floodplains, ponds and pools, where it builds its nests amongst dense vegetation, sometimes as far as half a mile away from water. During the winter it may also be found in estuaries, tidal flats, river deltas and coastal lagoons (3) (4) (6) (8) (9).
Species found in a similar habitat
Northern pintail status
The northern pintail is classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List (1).
Northern pintail threats
Occurring across North America, Europe and Asia, the northern pintail is one of the most widespread and common ducks in the world (3) (6) (8) (9). Its populations, however, have declined quite significantly since the 1950s and 1960s, due to a combination of habitat loss, hunting and pollution. In Europe, the northern pintail is threatened by the reclamation of coastal areas for industrial development, as well as by wetland drainage and peat extraction, while in West Africa its wintering grounds have suffered from major river diversion and irrigation schemes (9). In North America, the northern pintail is most affected by persistent drought and the loss of grassland habitat, particularly in the Prairie Pothole Region of central North America (6). The northern pintail is also heavily exploited for game hunting in North America and Europe, while its eggs are harvested for food in Iceland and it may be traded in Nigerian markets as a traditional ‘medicine’. The northern pintail is also susceptible to poisoning from lead shot and other contaminants that may accumulate in the species’ habitat. In addition, the northern pintail is predated by feral cats and rats on some islands, and is vulnerable to future outbreaks of avian botulism and avian influenza (9).
Northern pintail conservation
In North America, populations of the northern pintail are monitored and regulated by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP), a treaty endorsed by Canada, the United States and Mexico which aims to conserve waterfowl and migratory birds in North America. As part of the NAWMP, governments, conservation organisations and private landowners have all been working together to protect and restore wetlands important to the northern pintail, including in the Prairie Pothole Region and the Gulf Coast where there are many wintering sites important for the species. The number of northern pintails hunted each year in the region has also been reduced due to restrictions implemented in 1985 (3).
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- Simple plants that lack roots, stems and leaves but contain the green pigment chlorophyll. Most occur in marine and freshwater habitats.
- Avian botulism
- A paralytic, often fatal, disease of birds caused by the ingestion of toxin produced by the bacterium, Clostridium botulinum.
- Avian influenza
- Also known as “bird flu”, a contagious disease caused by any strain of influenza virus that is carried by and primarily affects birds.
- Slightly salty water, usually a mixture of salt and freshwater, such as that found in estuaries
- Previously domesticated animals that have returned to a wild state.
- To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
- Feeding on both plants and animals.
- In plants, a thickened stem or root that acts as an underground storage organ. Roots and shoots grow from growth buds, called ‘eyes’, on the surface of the tuber.
IUCN Red List (November, 2010)
del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1992) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 1: Ostrich to Ducks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Austin, J.E. and Miller, M.R. (1995). Northern pintail (Anas acuta). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
BirdGuides - Northern pintail (December, 2010)
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology - All About Birds: Northern pintail (December, 2010)
Ducks Unlimited – Northern pintail (December, 2010)
British Trust for Ornithology: BirdFacts – Northern pintail (December, 2010)
South Dakota Birds and Birding – Northern pintail (December, 2010)
BirdLife International – Northern pintail (December, 2010)