This medium-sized dabbling duck of slender, elegant lines and conservative plumage coloration is circumpolar in distribution and abundant in North America, with core nesting habitat in Alaska and the Prairie Pothole Region of southern Canada and the northern Great Plains. Breeders favor shallow wetlands interspersed throughout prairie grasslands or arctic tundra. An early fall migrant, the species arrives on wintering areas beginning in August, after wing molt, often forming large roosting and feeding flocks on open, shallow wetlands and flooded agricultural fields. The birds consume grains, marsh plant seeds, and aquatic invertebrates throughout fall and winter.
Northern Pintails are among the earliest nesting ducks in North America, beginning shortly after ice-out in many northern areas. Individuals form new pair bonds each winter but are highly promiscuous during the nesting season, with mated and unmated males often involved in vigorous, acrobatic Pursuit Flights. Annual nest success and productivity vary with water conditions, predation, and weather. Females build nests on the ground, often far from water. Only the female incubates; her mate leaves shortly after incubation begins. Ducklings hatch together in one day, follow the female to water after a day in the nest, and fledge by July or August. Adults and ducklings consume mainly aquatic invertebrates during the breeding season.
Predators and farming operations destroy many thousands of Northern Pintail nests annually; farming has also greatly reduced the amount of quality nesting cover available. Winter habitats are threatened by water shortages, agricultural development, contamination, and urbanization. Periods of extended drought in prairie nesting regions have caused dramatic population declines, usually followed by periods of recovery. Over the long term, however, the continental population of Northern Pintails has declined significantly from 6 million birds in the early 1970s to less than 3 million in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since then, the population appears to have stabilized; in 2013, the estimate was 3.3 million birds, a large number but below conservation goals despite favorable wetland conditions in much of the prairie breeding region. Ongoing conservation measures, however, such as habitat restoration and enhancement of agricultural lands, as well as prudent harvest management, suggest that Northern Pintails should have a secure future in North America.