The Pintail duck, as you can guess, gets its name from the male’s long tail feathers, which has central feathers up to four inches long. Male pintails, or drakes, have much more elaborately colored feathers than their female counterparts, called hens. The northern pintail is a graceful water bird with long, narrow wings and a long, elegant neck. A northern pintail is very nimble on land, but is particularly graceful in flight. THASC artist Richard Whitehead depicts them perfectly in his painting which shows the birds reach great speeds while flying, and thus have earned the nickname “The Greyhound of the Air”. The Northern Pintail is one of the most numerous species worldwide, after the Mallard. Even today their worldwide population is between 5 and 5.5 million birds. They have been found on every continent except Antarctica. In his painting Richard shows their wide wingspan, which is between 30-38 inches. Drakes measure from 20 to 30 inches long, while hens measure 20 to 25 inches. To see Richard’s ducks in flight, would one imagine that they are enduring fliers capable of flying up to 65 miles per hour? In fact, birds tagged in North America have been known to make trans-Atlantic flights and have been found in Europe days later!
Pintail ducks chose new mates every year when they breed between April and June. Several males often court one female. Female hens will primp their desired drakes. Male pintails make sounds like a whistle whereas females sound like a husky “quack”. The hen will lay between 5-10 pale olive eggs which are incubated between 21-25 days. Soon after the ducklings hatch the female leads them to the water to feed on dead insects until they grow their plumage about 45 days later. Interestingly enough, the drakes usually leave the breeding areas before the hens to go to moulting locations where they do not fly for four weeks so they may shed their feathers. They then migrate to wintering places from mid-August forward.
The long necks of the pintails allow them to bob for food in shallow waters up to one foot (usually at night) and they can eat everything from aquatic grasses and plants to frogs, insects and small fish. Since the Northern Pintail is heavily exploited by hunters in North America, it may also fall prey to feral cats and rats on a few islands and in addition is vulnerable to outbreaks of bird flu. Because they breed in grasslands near freshwater or salty lakes, rivers, and ponds where it builds its nests, a treaty between Canada, the United States, and Mexico has encouraged private landowners to be working with the governments to protect wetlands important to the Northern Pintail. The number of Northern Pintails hunted each year has been reduced and hunting off-season is illegal and can lead to a fine or jail.
Richard Whitehead’s love of nature, and especially of birds, has given us a flawless representation of this graceful, elegant duck. We can admire them mostly everywhere we find water be it in a small pond or a beautiful park like I did last week. There is nothing as precious as watching little ducklings waddling after their Mom to feed and certainly nothing as precise as watching the greyhounds of the air take flight. Hope you enjoy another lovely part of the season.
See you on Thursday.