Northern Pintail | Life Histories of North American Birds | A.C. Bent
Feather Pic Arthur Cleveland Bent

Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds
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Northern Pintail
Anas acuta [American Pintail]

[Published in 1923: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 126 (Part 1): 144-156]

Spring.--Northward, ever northward, clearly indicated on the distant sky, points the long slim figure of the pintail, in the vanguard of the spring migration, wending its way toward remote and still frozen shores. Vying with the mallard to be the first of the surface feeding ducks to push northward on the heels of retreating winter, this hardy pioneer extends its migration to the Arctic coast of the continent and occupies the widest breeding range of any North American duck, throughout most of which it is universally abundant and well known.

Prof. George E. Beyer (1906) says that, in Louisiana, "winter visitant individuals, as with similar individuals of the mallard, move northward very early, probably never later than the middle of January," whereas the spring transients in that State "are the latest of all the ducks except the teals and the shoveller." This accounts for the two distinct flights of pintails with which gunners are familiar. Dr. F. Henry Yorke (1899) recognizes three distinct flights; he says:

The spring migration above the frost line commences with the first breaking up of winter; the ducks follow the open pools of water to be found in sloughs, lakes, and rivers, and with the yellow-leg mallard are the first of the non-divers to start for their northern nesting grounds. They arrive in three distinct issues, the first leaving, in bulk, at least, before the second arrives; these stay about a week before they proceed northward. An absence of pintails, for three or four days, generally follows before the third issue puts in an appearance, which stay a week or 10 days, according to the weather, then travel northward, breeding chiefly south of the Canadian line.

Mr. Edmonde S. Currier (1902) says of its late arrival in Iowa:

If the great break-up of the ice comes late in the season, as the first week in March, which often happens after a severe winter, we find the eager sprigtails, and the first flight of mallards coming up, and then there is a bird life worth seeing. Although the number of ducks that pass here is rapidly falling off, still thousands are left.

The first flight of pintails is, with us, the greatest, and they always appear while the ice is running. Several days before the ice gives way an occasional flock will come up and circle around over the frozen river as if taking observations, and then disappear to the south. If a rain comes before the ice goes out, and forms pools in the bottom-land corn fields, they will settle in these until the rivers open, or a cold wave strikes us.

The pintail reaches its breeding grounds in northern Alaska early in May and sometimes before the end of April, while winter conditions are still prevailing. Dr. E. W. Nelson (1887) says:

One spring a small party was found about a small spring hole in the ice on the seashore the first of May, while a foot of snow still covered the ground and the temperature ranged only a few degrees above zero. As snow and ice disappear they become more and more numerous, until they are found about the border of almost every pool on the broad flats from the mouth of the Kuskoquim River north to the coast of Kotzebue Sound.

Courtship.--The courtship display of the shy pintail is not often seen, for even on their remote northern breeding grounds the males are ever alert and are not easily approached. The performance resembles that of the teals, where several drakes may be seen crowding their attention on a single duck, each standing erect on the water proudly displaying his snowy breast, with his long neck doubled in graceful curves until his bill is rested upon his swelling chest and with his long tail pointed upwards; thus he displays his charms and in soft mewing notes he woos his apparently indifferent lady love until she expresses her approval with an occasional low quack.

A more striking form of courtship, and one more often seen, is the marvelous nuptial flight, which Doctor Nelson (1887) has so well described as follows:

Once, on May 17, while sitting overlooking a series of small ponds, a pair of pintails arose and started off, the male in full chase after the female. Back and forth they passed at a marvelously swift rate of speed, with frequent quick turns and evolutions. At one moment they were almost out of view high overhead and the next saw them skimming along the ground in an involved course very difficult to follow with the eye. Ere long a second male joined in the chase, then a third, and so on until six males vied with each other in the pursuit. The original pursuer appeared to be the only one capable of keeping close to the coy female, and owing to her dexterous turns and curves he was able to draw near only at intervals. Whenever he did succeed he always passed under the female, and kept so close to her that their wings clattered together with a noise like a watchman's rattle, and audible a long distance. This chase lasted half an hour, and after five of the pursuers had dropped off one by one, the pair remaining (and I think the male was the same that originated the pursuit) settled in one of the ponds.

Nesting.--Mr. F. Seymour Hersey says in his notes on this species in northern Alaska:

There is probably no place within the breeding range of this widely distributed duck where it is more abundant than on the stretch of tundra bordering the Bering Sea coast of western Alaska. Almost every little tundra pond will contain a few birds--perhaps a pair or a female and two or three males--and parties of two to five or six are constantly flying from one pond to another.

The pintail very often makes its nest farther from water than any other of the northern breeding ducks, although the greater number nest near the shores of ponds. Before the set is complete, the eggs are covered with down, intermingled with leaves, sticks, dead grass, and mosses, and the female spends the day at a considerable distance from the nest. Incubation begins only when the set is complete. Early in June, 1914, while walking over the tundra some miles back from St. Michael I noticed a few pieces of down clinging to the base of some dwarf willow bushes. It aroused my suspicions and searching among the accumulated dead leaves and moss at the roots of the bush I soon disclosed an incomplete set of pintail's eggs. They were thoroughly concealed and had it not been for the few telltale bits of down would have remained undiscovered. The female later completed this set, and on June 10 the nest held nine eggs. This nest was at least a half mile from the nearest water.  At the mouth of the Yukon on June 17, 1914, two nests were found in the center of some clumps of willows in a marsh. The bushes were growing in a few inches of water through which a heavy growth of coarse grass protruded. About the base of the willows the dead grass of previous years was matted and in this dead grass the nests were made. This was the wettest situation that I ever knew this species to select in the north.

As might be expected of an early migrant, the pintail is one of the earliest breeders; in North Dakota it begins to lay by the 1st of May or earlier and we found that many of the broods were hatched by the first week in June. The nest is placed almost anywhere on dry ground, sometimes near the edge of a slough or pond, sometimes on an island in a lake, but more often on the prairie and sometimes a half a mile or more from the nearest water; it is generally poorly concealed and is often in plain sight. Once, while crossing a tract of burned prairie, I saw a dark object fully half a mile away, which on closer inspection proved to be a pintail sitting on a nest full of half roasted eggs; this was a beautiful illustration of parental devotion and showed that the bird was not dependent on concealment. A deep hollow is scooped out in the ground, which is sparingly lined with bits of straw and stubble, and a scanty lining of down is increased in quantity as incubation advances.

My North Dakota notes describe four nests of this species. The first nest, found on May 31, 1901, was concealed in rather tall prairie grass on the highest part of a small island in one of the larger lakes. On June 15 we found another nest in an open situation among rather sparse but tall prairie grass, which was in plain sight, the eggs being beautifully concealed by a thick covering of down. Another nest was shown to us by some farmers who were plowing up an extensive tract of prairie and had flushed the bird as they passed within a few feet of the nest; they left a narrow strip containing the nest unplowed, but something destroyed the eggs a few days afterwards; this nest was fully half a mile from the nearest water. The fourth nest was on the edge of a cultivated wheat field, near the crest of a steep embankment sloping down into a large slough; the nest was a deep hollow in the bottom of a furrow, 7 inches wide by 4 deep lined with bits of straw and weed stubble, with a moderate supply of down surrounding the eggs; it was very poorly concealed by the scanty growth of weeds around it; the eight eggs, which it contained on June 10, proved to be heavily incubated.

In Saskatchewan, in 1905 and 1906, we recorded 11 nests of pintails, 8 of which were found on one small island on one day, where this species was breeding with large numbers of gadwalls, blue-winged and green-winged teals, shovellers, mallards, baldpates, and lesser scaup ducks. One pintail's nest was prettily located under a wild rosebush among the sand hills near Crane Lake, 1 mile from the nearest creek and 2 miles from the lake.

Mr. Robert B. Rockwell (1911) found two nests of this species, in the Barr Lake region of Colorado, in decidedly exposed situations, which he describes as follows:

The first nest, found on May 11, 1907, was probably the most unusually located nest of the pintail on record. It was just a trifle less than 18 feet from the rails of the main line of the Burlington route, over which a dozen or more heavy trains thundered every day, and well within the railroad right of way, where section hands and pedestrians passed back and forth continually. The mother bird had found a cavity in the ground, about 8 inches in diameter and 8 inches deep, and had lined it with grass; and the two fresh eggs which it contained on this date were deposited without any downy lining whatever. The female flushed as we passed along the track about 20 feet distant, thus attracting our attention. A week later (on the 18th) the nest was fairly well lined with down and contained nine eggs, one egg having apparently been deposited each day. On May 24 the nest contained 11 eggs and the parent was much tamer than on the two preceding visits, allowing us to approach to within 15 feet of her, and alighting within 20 yards of us upon being flushed.

Another peculiar nest was found on May 30, 1908, containing 11 eggs which hatched during the first week in June. This nest was a depression in a perfectly bare sandy flat without a particle of concealment of any kind. The cavity was located in the most exposed position within hundreds of yards, and was fairly well lined with weed stems, grass, etc. and well rimmed with down. The brooding female was very conspicuous against the background of bare sand, and could be readily seen from a distance of 50 feet or more. This bird was rather wild and flushed while we were yet some distance from the nest.

Mr. Eugene S. Rolfe (1898) records, what I have never seen, a pintail's nest in a wet situation, which is very unusual; he says:

The nesting of the pintail differs little generally from other ducks that select high dry spots among the prairie grass, badger brush, or old stubble; but a young farmer this year piloted me to a clump of thick green bulrushes covering a space as large as a dining table in the midst of a springy bog, and in the center of this, built up 6 inches out of water (18 inches deep) on a foundation of coarse dried rushes, exactly after the manner of the redhead, canvasback, or ruddy, and lined with down, was a veritable nest of the pintail. The female was at home, and permitted approach within 6 feet; and I stood some moments watching her curiously and regretting the absence of my camera before I realized that this was the pintail in a very unusual situation.

The down in the pintail's nest most closely resembles that of the shoveller, but it is larger and darker. It varies in color from "hair brown" to "fuscous" or "clove brown" with whitish centers. The breast feathers mixed with the down are either of the characteristic banded pattern or are grayish brown with a broad white tip.

Eggs.--Only one brood is raised in a season and the number of eggs in the set averages less than other surface feeding ducks. The set varies from 6 to 12 eggs, but it is usually less than 10. It is unusual to find the eggs of other ducks in a pintail's nest, but as the eggs closely resemble those of some other species, it may be a commoner occurrence than it is supposed to be. Mr. Edward Arnold (1894) records the finding of a golden eye's egg in a pintail's nest in Manitoba. The eggs closely resemble, in color and general appearance, those of the mallard and the shoveller, but they average smaller than the former and slightly larger than the latter, the measurements overlapping in both cases. In shape they are usually elliptical ovate and the color varies from very pale olive green to very pale olive buff, which fades out to a mere tint.

Although the eggs of the pintail cannot be separated with certainty from those of the above two species, the nests of all three can usually be identified if a clear view of the female is obtained as she flies from the nest; the female pintail can be distinguished from the female mallard by the absence of the purple speculum with its conspicuous white borders and by its long slender form; she can be distinguished from the shoveller by her larger size and her small bill; the female shoveller has a long neck, but a conspicuously large bill; the wing pattern is different, but the difference is difficult to detect in the rapidly moving wings of a flying duck.

The measurements of 102 eggs, in various collections, average 54.9 by 38.2 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 60 by 38.5, 58.5 by 40.5, 50.5 by 37.2 an 53 by 35 millimeters.

Young.--The period of incubation is about 22 or 23 days and the incubation is performed wholly by the female; she is a very close sitter and is often nearly trodden upon before she will leave the nest; I have heard of one being knocked off with a stick or a plowman's whip as she fluttered off, and it is not a difficult matter to photograph one on her nest. The male does not, I believe, wholly desert the female during the process of incubation and he assists somewhat in the care of the young, though he is not as bold in their defense. The young remain in the nest for a day or so after they are hatched or until the down is thoroughly dried. The whole brood usually hatches within a few hours, for, although only one egg is laid each day, incubation does not begin until the set is complete. As soon as the young are strong enough to walk they are led by their mother to the nearest water, which is often a long distance away, and taught to feed on soft insect and aquatic animal food. I have seen some remarkable demonstrations of parental solicitude by female pintails; they are certainly the most courageous of any of the ducks in the defense of their young. Once in North Dakota as we waded out into a marsh a female pintail flew towards us, dropped into the water near us, and began splashing about in a state of great excitement. The young ducks were probably well hidden  among the reeds, though we could not see or hear them. During all the time, for an hour or more, that we were wading around the little slough that pintail watched us and followed us closely, flying about our heads and back and forth over the slough, frequently splashing down into the water near us in the most reckless manner, swimming about in small circles or splashing along the surface of the water, as if wounded and often near enough for us to have hit her with a stick, quacking excitedly all the time. I never saw a finer exhibition of parental devotion than was shown by her total disregard of her own safety, which did not cease until we left the locality entirely. I have had several similar experiences elsewhere. If alarmed, when swimming in the sloughs, the young seldom attempt to dive though they can do so, if necessary; they more often swim into the reeds and hide while the mother bird attracts the attention of the intruder. Doctor Coues (1874) says that during July in Montana--

The young were just beginning to fly, in most instances, while the old birds were for the most part deprived of flight by molting of the quills. Many of the former were killed with sticks, or captured by hand, and afforded welcome variation of our hard fare. On invasion of the grassy or reedy pools where the ducks were, they generally crawled shyly out upon the prairie around, and then squatted to hide; so that we procured more from the dry grass surrounding than in the pools themselves. I have sometimes stumbled thus upon several together, crouching as close as possible, and caught them all in my hands.

Dr. Harold C. Bryant (1914) relates the following incident:

On May 21 a pintail with 10 downy young was discovered on the bank of a pond. When first disturbed she was brooding her young on dry ground about 10 feet from the water. The moment she flew the downy young assumed rigidly the same poses they had variously held beneath the mother. Some were standing nearly erect whereas others were crouching, but all were huddled close together. They remained perfectly motionless while, leaving Kendall to watch, I went for the camera. I had gone over a hundred yards before they moved. By the time I returned they had wandered off about 10 yards. They marched in single file and every now and then huddled close together posing motionless for a few moments.

Plumages.--The downy young is grayer and browner than other young surface-feeding ducks and thus easily recognized. The crown is dark, rich "clove brown"; and a broad superciliary stripe of grayish white extends from the lores to the occiput; below this the side of the head is mainly grayish white, fading to pure white on the throat and chin, with a narrow postocular stripe of "clove brown" and a paler and broader stripe of the same below it. The back is "clove brown," darkest on the rump, with grayish or buffy tips on the down of the upper back; the rump and scapular spots are white, the latter sometimes elongated into stripes. The lower parts are grayish white, palest in the center. The chest, and sometimes the sides of the head, are suffused with pinkish buff, but never with yellow. The colors become duller and paler as the bird grows older. When the young bird is about 3 weeks old the first feathers appear on the flanks and scapulars and the tail becomes noticeable; about a week later feathers begin to show on the rump, breast, head, and neck, and the bird is fully grown before its contour plumage is complete; the flight feathers are the last to be acquired. The length of time required to complete the first plumage varies greatly in different individuals, but the sequence in which it appears is uniform.

Mr. J. G. Millais (1902) says of the sequence of plumages to maturity:

When in first plumage the young male and female are exceedingly like one another, especially at the commencement of this period; they also resemble the mother to a certain extent, but from her they can be easily distinguished by the small spots which cover the breast and belly, and the narrow brown edge of the feathers on the back and scapulars. The young male pintail, however, like the young mallard drake, almost as soon as he has assumed his first dress commences to color change in the back and scapulars. A gray tinge suffuses the brown plumage and slight reticulations appear on the feathers themselves, rendering it easy to notice the difference between him and the young female. He is also somewhat larger. By the middle of September the usual molt and the more advanced feather changes commence, and sometimes, in birds in a high state of condition, advance so rapidly, that young drakes of the year may attain the full plumage of the adult drake by the beginning of December. Most of them, however, retain a considerable proportion of the brown plumage until February, when the spring flush finishes off the dress. Even then young pintail drakes are not nearly so brilliant as 2 or 3 year old birds, and often show their youthfulness by their shorter tail, dull coloring on the head, and reticulated black bars traversing the white stripes on either side of the neck.

There is considerable individual variation in the length of time required by young birds to throw off the last signs of immaturity, but old and young birds become practically indistinguishable before the first eclipse plumage is assumed and entirely so after it is discarded. Some male pintails begin to show the first spotted feathers of the eclipse plumage early in June and during July the molt progresses rapidly and uniformly over the whole body, head, and neck until the full eclipse is complete in August, and the males are indistinguishable from the females except by the wings and the difference in size. The wings are molted only once, of course, in August; and, after the flight feathers are fully grown, early in September, the second molt into the adult winter begins; this molt is usually not completed until November or December, the time varying with different individuals. I have never detected any signs of a spring molt in male pintails, but Mr. Millais calls attention to the fact that females which have pure white breasts in the winter become more or less spotted during the nesting season.

Food.--The pintail is a surface feeder, dipping below the surface only with the fore part of its body, with its tail in the air, maintaining its balance by paddling with its feet, while its long neck is reaching for its food. Here it feeds on the bulbous roots and tender shoots of a great variety of water plants, as well as their seeds; it also finds some animal food such as minnows, crawfish, tadpoles, leeches, worms, snails, insects, and larvae. Dr. F. Henry Yorke (1899) states that it feeds on wheat, barley, buckwheat, and Indian corn. Audubon (1840) says of its animal food:

It feeds on tadpoles in spring and leeches in autumn, while, during winter, a dead mouse, should it come its way, is swallowed with as much avidity as by a mallard. To these articles of food it adds insects of all kinds, and, in fact, it is by no means an inexpert flycatcher.

Dr. P. L. Hatch (1892) says that, in Minnesota, the pintails may be found in spring "along the recently opened streams, and in the woodlands where they spend much of their time in search of acorns, insects, snails, and larvae of different kinds, which are under the wet leaves and on the old decaying logs with which the forests abound." Mr. Edward A. Preble (1908) found it feeding on small mollusks (Lymnaea palustris) in northern Canada, and Mr. F. C. Baker (1889) dissected 15 stomachs in Florida, all of which contained "shells of Truncatella subcylindrica (Say)." Mr. Douglas C. Mabbott (1920) sums up the food of the pintail as follows:

Vegetable matter constitutes about seven-eighths (87.15 per cent) of the total food of the pintail. This is made up of the following items: Pondweeds, 28.04 per cent; sedges, 21.78; grasses, 9.64; smartweeds and docks, 4.74; arrow grass, 4.52; musk grass and other algae, 3.44; arrowhead and water plantain, 2.84; goosefoot family, 2.58; water lily family, 2.57; duckweeds, 0.8; water milfoils, 0.21; and miscellaneous vegetable food, 5.99 per cent.

The animal portion, 12.85 per cent, of the food of the pintail was made up of mollusks, 5.81 per cent; crustaceans, 3.79 per cent; insects, 2.85 per cent; and miscellaneous, 0.4 per cent.

Behavior.--The pintail is built on graceful, clipper lines and is well fitted to cleave the air at a high rate of speed; it has been credited by gunners with ability to make 90 miles an hour; this may be rather a high estimate of its speed, but it is certainly very fleet of wing and surpassed by few if any of the ducks. Mr. Walter H. Rich (1907) says:

The pintail's flight will at once remind the bay gunner of that of the "old squaw," so well known along the Atlantic coast. The same chain lightning speed and darting and wheeling evolutions are common in both species.

Dr. E. W. Nelson (1887) who had good opportunities for studying this species in Alaska, gives the following graphic account of one of its remarkable flight performances:

During the mating season they have a habit of descending from a great altitude at an angle of about 45 o, with their wings stiffly outspread and slightly decurved downward. They are frequently so high that I have heard the noise produced by their passage through the air from 15 to 20 seconds before the bird came in sight. They descend with meteorlike swiftness until within a few yards of the ground, when a slight change in the position of the wings sends the birds sliding away close to the ground from 100 to 300 yards without a single wing stroke. The sound produced by this swift passage through the air can only be compared to the rushing of a gale through tree tops. At first it is like a murmur, then rising to a hiss, and then almost assuming the proportions of a roar as the bird sweeps by.

The pintail can generally be distinguished in flight by its long, slim neck and slender build, which is conspicuous in both sexes; the tail is also more pointed than in other species, even without the long tail feathers of the full plumaged male. The pintail springs upward from the water, much like a teal, and gets under way at once; a flock of pintails flushed suddenly will often bunch together so closely as to give the gunner a chance for a destructive shot.

The pintail is a graceful swimmer, riding lightly on the surface, with its tail pointing upward, its general attitude suggestive of a swan and with its long neck stretched up, alert to every danger, the first to give the alarm and always the first of the shy waterfowl to spring into flight. The hunter must be very cautious if he would stalk this wary bird. Though not a diver from choice, the pintail can dive when necessity requires it. It often escapes by diving while in the flightless stage of eclipse plumage.

Mr. Hersey's notes on this species in Alaska record the following interesting observation:

While the pintail is not a diving duck, it can dive readily if wounded and in other emergencies. On one occasion a female followed by two males flew past and I shot the female. She dropped into a nearby pond but when I reached the shore had crawled into the grass and hidden. Circling the pond, which was but 30 or 40 feet in width by about the same number of yards in length, I soon reached my bird. Without hesitation she dove and crossed to the other side under water. The water was fairly clear and not more than 30 inches deep and the bird's movements could be plainly watched. The body was held at an angle, with the neck extended but not straight and the head slightly raised. The wings were partly opened but were not used and the feet struck out alternately as in running rather than with a swimming motion. The bird reminded me of a frightened chicken crossing the road in front of an automobile but the speed was much slower through the water than in the case of the chicken. The bird did not run on the bottom of the pond but was perhaps 6 or 7 inches from the bottom. On reaching the opposite shore she came up directly into the concealment of the grass. This proceeding was repeated in exactly the same manner several times before I secured the bird.

The following incident, described by Mr. Frank T. Noble (1906) will illustrate a strange habit which this and nearly all ducks have of disappearing beneath the surface when wounded; he had shot two pintails, one being--

killed outright, the other, a big drake, being hard hit and with one wing broken. Before the latter could be shot over, he made a dive with considerable difficulty and disappeared from view. We waited perhaps half a minute for him to appear again, but not doing so we paddled to the spot, where we found the water thereabouts to be scarcely 3 feet deep, and the bottom to be thickly covered with various kinds of lily pads and grasses. A few moments of careful search and the duck was discovered on the bottom, grasping with its bill the tough stem of a cowslip. The body of the bird floated upward posteriorly, somewhat higher than the position of the head, and the long tail feathers were a foot or more nearer the surface than the former. The bird's feet were outstretched, but he was motionless until molested, then he kicked and fluttered vigorously, all the time retaining his hold upon the bottom, and it required considerable force to break him away from his queer anchorage.

Mr. J. G. Millais (1902) says that:

The nuptial call of the drake is identical with that of the teal. The female only occasionally utters a low quack, but she sometimes makes a call something like the growling croak of the female widgeon. The notes of both sexes are always quite distinct.

The ordinary note of the male pintail is a low mellow whistle, and I doubt if it ever utters the quacking note which should be attributed to the female; the rolling note, similar to that of the lesser scaup duck, may be common to both sexes; Dr. E. W. Nelson (1887) says that this note "may be imitated by rolling the end of the tongue with the mouth ready to utter the sound of k."

The pintail associates freely on its breeding grounds with various species of ducks, particularly with the mallard, gadwall, blue-winged teal, baldpate, shoveller, and lesser scaup duck. It usually flocks by itself, however, on migrations.  Its most formidable enemy is man; for with the sportsman the pintail is a favorite. Its eggs are also sought for food, in some localities quite regularly, for the nests are easily found and the eggs are very palatable. Mr. Robert B. Rockwell (1911) has published a photograph of a bull snake robbing a pintail's nest in Colorado. I have seen nests in Saskatchewan which showed signs of having been robbed by coyotes.

Fall.--Although the pintail is one of our earliest migrants in the spring, it seems much less hardy in the fall and is one of the first of the ducks to seek the sunny South as soon as the first frosty nights proclaim the approach of autumn. Doctor Yorke (1899) says of the fall migration:

In the fall migration they differ from other cold-weather birds of the non-divers in returning south before the cold weather sets in; in fact, the first frost finds those which bred in the United States rapidly wending their way toward the frost line. The first issue to come down in the fall usually leaves the northern part of Minnesota and North Dakota about the end of August. They associate a good deal with the baldpates and gadwalls, using the same feeding, roosting, and playgrounds in the fall, not associating with them in the spring owing to their having gone north several weeks before them, and feeding to a large extent upon grain and corn fields. The second fall issue generally overtakes the first before they reach the frost line. They collect in some quiet piece of water, migrate at night and never return that fall. They do not assume their full plumage north of the frost line.

Game.--As a game bird the pintail ranks about third among the surface-feeding ducks, next in importance to the mallard and black duck; its wariness and its swiftness on the wing test the cunning and skill of the sportsman; its wide distribution, its abundance and its excellent table qualities give it a prominent place as a food bird. Late winter and early spring shooting was popular in the Middle West before the laws prohibited it, where the birds arrived early, as soon as the ice began to break up in the marshes and sloughs; here the birds were shot on their morning and evening flights to and from their feeding grounds from blinds or boats concealed in their fly ways, no decoys being necessary. Pintails will come readily to live mallard decoys during the daytime on their feeding grounds and they will respond to duck calls if skillfully handled, offering very fine sport where they are not shot at too much.

Dr. Leonard C. Sanford (1903) says:

In portions of the West where they frequent the ponds and smaller lakes they are much more easily killed than on larger bodies of water. The pintail arrives on the coast of North Carolina late in October, and are found in numbers through the brackish sounds. Decoys attract them occasionally, but never in as large numbers as the other ducks, for they are always wary and quick to suspect danger. These birds can be distinguished afar. The white under parts of the male and their long necks mark them at once. The flight is high in lines abreast, but almost before the flock is seen they are by and out of sight. When about to decoy no bird is more graceful; they often drop from a height far out of range and circle about the stool, watching carefully for the slightest motion; finally they swing within range and plunge among the wooden ducks. After realizing the mistake, they spring up all together, and are out of shot almost before you realize the chance is gone.

Winter.--Like many other fresh-water ducks of the interior the pintail winters largely on the warm seacoasts of the Southern States, though it is also abundant among the inland ponds and marshes below the frost line. It is particularly abundant in Florida, as the following account by Mr. C. J. Maynard (1896) will show:

On one occasion, while I was making my way down Indian River, numbers of these ducks were passing over my head southward. They flew in straggling flocks, consisting of from twenty to some hundreds of specimens, and one company followed another so closely that there was an almost unbroken line. They continued to move in this manner all morning; thus many thousands of individuals must have passed us. Shortly after noon the began to alight along the beaches in such numbers that they fairly covered the ground, and were so unsuspicious that my assistant, who had left the boat some time previous, walked within a few yards of them, and killed three or four with a single discharge of a light gun which was merely loaded with a small charge of dust shot. This occurred in early March and the birds were evidently gathering, preparatory to migrating northward, for in a few days they had all disappeared.

While wintering on the seacoast, especially where it is much molested, the pintail often spends the day well out on the ocean, flying in at night to feed in the shallow tidal estuaries on beds of Zostera or on the mud and sand flats where it finds plenty of small mollusks.

Northern Pintail* Anas acuta [American Pintail]

*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1923. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 126 (Part 1): 144-156. United States Government Printing Office