At a Glance
Widespread across North America, Europe, and Asia, the Northern Pintail is probably one of the most numerous duck species in the world (although outnumbered by the omnipresent Mallard). Slim and long-necked, it has an elegant appearance both on the water and in flight. Pintails are wary at all seasons, and become very secretive during the flightless stage of their molt in late summer.
All bird guide text and rangemaps adapted from Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman© 1996, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Duck-like Birds, Surface Feeding Ducks
Coasts and Shorelines, Fields, Meadows, and Grasslands, Freshwater Wetlands, Lakes, Ponds, and Rivers, Saltwater Wetlands, Tundra and Boreal Habitats
Alaska and The North, California, Eastern Canada, Florida, Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, New England, Northwest, Plains, Rocky Mountains, Southeast, Southwest, Texas, Western Canada
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
Migrates in flocks. Northward migration begins early in spring, southward migration is under way for much of fall. Many pintails nesting in Siberia cross the Bering Strait to winter in North America.
Male, 25-29" (64-74 cm); female, 21-23 (53-58 cm). Male has white stripe running up long neck onto brown head; gray body, long tail. Female mottled buff-brown; known by pointed tail, long neck, gray bill. In flight, shows narrow white trailing edge on inner part of wing.
About the size of a Crow, About the size of a Mallard or Herring Gull
Black, Blue, Brown, Gray, White
Long, Narrow, Pointed, Tapered
Long, Pointed, Wedge-shaped
Songs and Calls
Distinctive 2-tone whistle; females quack.
Croak/Quack, Odd, Rattle
Marshes, prairies, fresh ponds, lakes, salt bays. Summers in wide variety of open habitats, including prairies, farmland, northern tundra, near bodies of water. In migration and winter around any shallow waters with exposed mudflats, including fresh and brackish marshes, lakes, flooded fields.
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7-10, sometimes 6-12. Pale olive. Incubation is by female only, 21-25 days.
female leads young from nest within a few hours after they hatch. Young feed themselves. Capable of flight at 38-52 days after hatching; in far north, where continuous daylight allows for feeding at all hours, young may develop faster.
Forages in shallow water by up-ending with tail up and head down, or by submerging head and neck while swimming, finding most food in underwater mud. Also forages by walking on land.
Mostly seeds, insects. Diet mostly plant material in fall and winter, especially seeds of grasses, sedges, pondweeds, and others, and waste grain in fields. In spring and summer also feeds on roots and new growth. More animal matter in summer, mainly insects, mollusks, crustaceans; sometimes tadpoles, small fish. Young ducklings eat mostly insects.
Pair formation begins on winter range and continues during spring migration, with some birds perhaps not paired until after arrival on breeding grounds. Several males often court one female, leading to pursuit flights. Nest site is on dry ground among short vegetation, usually near water but can be up to 1/2 mile away; often more exposed than nests of other ducks. Nest (built by female) a shallow depression lined with grasses, twigs, leaves, with addition of down.
Widespread and abundant, but many surveys have suggested a significant decline since the 1960s. Numbers vary considerably; series of drought years on the northern plains may drastically reduce nesting success there.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Northern Pintail. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Northern Pintail
Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.