Northern Pintail

Anas acuta



Welcome to the Birds of North America Online!

You are currently viewing one of the free species accounts available in our complimentary tour of BNA. In this courtesy review, you can access all the life history articles and the multimedia galleries associated with this species.

For complete access to all species accounts, a subscription is required. Subscriptions are available for as little as $5 for 30 days of complete access! If you would like to subscribe to BNA, please visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology E-Store or call us at 877-873-2626 (M-F, 8:00-4:00 ET).

Figure 2. Selected courtship behaviors of Northern Pintails

Selected courtship behaviors of Northern Pintails (after Johnsgard 1965, redrawn by J. Schmitt): (a) Grunt-whistle; (b) Head-up-tail-up; (c) aggres-sive Chin-lifting by one male toward another.

Figure 3. Pursuit Flight of Northern Pintail drakes after hen

(from Hochbaum 1944). Drawing by Peter Ward.


Walking, Hopping, Climbing, Etc.

Quite agile walking or running on land, with slight waddle.


Graceful, acrobatic flyer, capable of “darting and wheeling evolutions” (Bent 1923). Pursuit Flights fast and vigorous, with sudden, rapid dives from great heights to low, ground level flight. Like other Anas species, able to rise quickly from water surface at a sharp angle. Locks or cups wings to glide before landing; can hover while landing.

Swimming And Diving

Rides lightly on surface with tail pointed upward. Dives for food in various situations (Miller 1983d); dive duration ≤10 s, travels several meters forward underwater. During dive, neck is extended with head slightly raised, wings partly opened but not used, and feet paddle alternately (Bent 1923). Flightless or injured birds will dive if pursued.


Preening, Head-Scratching, Stretching, Bathing, Anting, Etc.

McKinney (McKinney 1965b) describes comfort movements and their function in detail.

Shaking and Stretching Motions. Body Shake typically occurs after emerging from water or after bathing; functions to remove water from feathers and rearrange feathering. Head Shake is commonly associated with bouts of Nibbling Preening; given as part of preflight behaviors or by males in courtship parties as preliminary display. Head Flick given by males in courtship parties in association with Grunt-whistle. Tail Wag is normally associated with every activity involving wetting of tail or defecation (e.g., bathing, alighting on water, Body Shake); probably removes water from tail feathers. As postcopulatory behavior, probably functions to aid retraction of penis. Wing Shake commonly occurs during oiling after bathing; Wing Flap occurs after bathing or preening and less frequently during feeding or after sleeping. Wing-shuffle and Tail Fan occur during oiling and Nibbling Preening, which follows bathing. Both-wings Stretch and Wing-and-leg Stretch occur after awakening, during preening, or before going to sleep. Foot Shake removes material before tucking foot under plumage.

Cleaning Movements. Scratches frequently during bathing and preening bouts. Foot-pecking usually occurs during pauses in feeding or preening. Bill Dip is usually associated with Nibbling Preening. Shoulder-rubbing can occur during bathing or preening, or after aggressive encounters. Bathing involves rapidly dipping head into water then throwing water onto back, thrashing partly opened wings in water, and at times lowering head and breast and kicking vigorously until body flips over. Washing involves vigorous preening, scratching, or head-rolling during bathing.

Preening. Oiling Preening distributes secretions from uropygial gland over plumage, and Nibbling Preening is directed toward skin and the base of feathers. Some aspects of preening have been ritualized into courtship displays (see Sexual Behavior, below).

Sleeping, Roosting, Sunbathing

Sleeps with bill tucked under scapulars or with head and neck reclined on breast. Loafs on mud flats, open shorelines, or bare levees.

Daily Time Budget

Generally feeds day and night. In N. Dakota, hens feed 25% of time at arrival in the nesting region, 40% of time during prelaying and laying, and 60% of the time when off the nest during incubation (Krapu and Reinecke 1992). Breeding females feed more often than their mates during prenesting (43 vs. 35% of day) and laying (40 vs. 30%), whereas males spend more time alert (5–15% vs. 3–5%; Derrickson 1977). During incubation, females leave the nest twice a day and have repetitious cycles of foraging and comfort activities (24%) while off the nest (Derrickson 1977). Time spent in social interactions declines from arrival through laying, reflecting increasing isolation of pairs.

Alaskan pintails spend more time feeding during prelaying than during laying or incubation periods; no differences between the sexes (Burris 1991). Females average 81 min/d feeding during prelaying and 141 min/d during brood rearing;  spend less time feeding when consuming tubers and seeds vs. invertebrates.

Time-activity budgets vary in winter by region. In the Sacramento Valley, CA (Miller 1985b), wintering females feed and loaf more than males do, whereas males swim and court more than females; diurnal feeding is frequent except during midwinter. Courting is most intense (up to 2 h/d) in Dec and Jan, and most frequent early in the day. In the Yucatán, Mexico, feeding (42–48% of day), resting (19–23%), and locomotion (20–24%) are main activities (Thompson and Baldassarre 1991); in Sinaloa, Mexico, feed 10–32% of day and rest 38–55% (Migoya et al. 1994). In Texas rice fields, time spent feeding is highest in Jan and Feb (28–33%); courtship (9%) and locomotion (11%) highest in Dec (Rave and Cordes 1993). In coastal N. Carolina, foraging activity is highest in Nov and Feb (65–71% and 66–74%, respectively), courtship highest in Jan and Feb (2.6 and 1.1%, respectively) (Hepp 1982). In all regions, birds often fly to fields at night to feed.

Agonistic Behavior

Largely nonaggressive and sociable; fighting among males is uncommon. During breeding, agonistic behaviors by males occur almost exclusively in the presence of a mate (Derrickson 1977). Chin-lifting (single, rapid raising and lowering of the head) occurs in both greeting/appeasement and threatening contexts, given most frequently as rival males approach a pair. Threat: open bill postures and jabs directed at another bird. Chase: male moves rapidly toward opponent with open bill held low to water or ground surface, neck extended. Fight: biting and striking with wings.

On wintering grounds in Mexico (Thompson and Baldassarre 1992), interactions (Threat [57% of interactions], Chase [10%], and Fight [15%]) are most commonly associated with feeding and are directed toward conspecifics. Paired birds are more dominant, and females are more successful in encounters than males. In N. Carolina, males are more successful and dominate when pair status is equal, and paired females are dominant over unpaired males (Hepp and Hair 1984).

Brooding females often initiate aggressive interactions, most frequently toward ducklings from another brood or toward other ducks or American Coots (Fulica americana) (Guinn and Batt 1985). Behaviors include Threat, Pursuit (chasing or swimming toward another bird with open bill), and Attack (pecking at or fighting with another bird).


No evidence of territoriality. On breeding areas, species lacks definite territorial boundaries; may defend 2- to 3-m area around mate (Derrickson 1977). Home ranges of pairs may extend >500 ha, with no apparent defended area (Derrickson 1978). Breeding pairs and males often share wetlands and loafing sites with Northern Pintails and other duck species. Mobility and range greatest during prenesting and, for females, decline through laying and incubation.

Sexual Behavior

Mating System And Sex Ratio

Primarily monogamous, with highly developed strategy of forced copulations (McKinney et al. 1983).

Sex ratios during breeding in Alaska are high early in spring (67–79% males) but decline to near parity at beginning of nesting activities (53–57%) (C. R. Ely pers. comm.). In Utah (Fuller 1953) and N. and S. Dakota, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan (JEA), males increase from 55–70% in Apr to 75–85% in May and Jun, reflecting absence from view of increasing numbers of incubating hens. Sex ratios are lower (50–65% males) in May–Jun where nesting effort is low during drought (JEA). Wintering populations in California contain 94% males in Aug, 76% in Nov, and 53% in Jan (Miller 1985b).

Pair Bond

Pair bonds begin to form in fall–early winter; maintained to early incubation (Sowls 1955, Oring 1964a, Derrickson 1977). See also Breeding: phenology. Male usually attends mate during prelaying and laying periods to defend her from predators and forced copulations (FCs) (Derrickson 1977, McKinney et al. 1983). Sorenson and Derrickson (Sorensen and Derrickson 1994) suggest females choose mates based on male behavior (attentiveness and intensity of courtship) and plumage (whiter breasts and more colorful scapulars); male dominance is a result rather than a cause of female choice.


Described in detail by Lorenz (Lorenz 1951) and Johnsgard (Johnsgard 1965; also see Figure 2) with further description relative to female nesting status in Derrickson (Derrickson 1977).

Males. Common sequence of courtship displays by grouped males (see Figure 2): Chin-lift, Burp, Grunt-whistle, Head-up-tail-up, or Turning-the-back-of-the-head (latter more common by preferred male). These also have aerial forms used during Pursuit Flights (see below). Burp, unique to pintail species and the most common male display, may be performed repeatedly before Grunt-whistle, the first major display. During Burp, neck is extended vertically and bill tilted slightly downward while male gives ee hee call with whistle. Preen-behind-the-wing, a ritualized preening to expose the speculum, is a common display. Mutual Head Pumping is a precopulatory display; male or both sexes rhythmically and repeatedly raise and lower head. Bridling is a common postcopulatory display after dismounting the female; head is flung back without lifting bill.

Females. Inciting Display shows preference for a certain male and rejection of others in a group; female moves toward or follows preferred male and orients rhythmic head and neck movements toward other males that approach her, giving rapid kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk or rrr-rrr-rrr calls. Preen-behind-the-wing is common; may be mutual display with mate. Repulsion Display (most common in incubating or broody hens) is given to repel threatening drakes or intruding humans; female holds head back on her shoulders and opens bill wide while giving gaeck call.

Phenology. In N. Carolina (Hepp and Hair 1983), no courtship activities in Nov, but frequency and intensity of displays increase to peak in Jan (2.6% of time in reproductive behavior). In early Dec, males perform low-intensity displays (Burp, Grunt-whistle); displays are short and infrequent with lack of receptivity by females. Display frequency and intensity increase from mid-Dec on; males perform greater variety of displays (adding Head-up-tail-up, jump flights, and copulations), and females respond, mostly with Inciting Display. Some courtship activity continues on breeding grounds into Apr and early May (Smith 1968b, Derrickson 1977). Smith (Smith 1968b) did not observe copulations in Texas during Jan–Feb. In central California, 34 of 70 copulations observed (Aug–Mar, 1980–1982) were in Jan (Miller 1985b).

Copulation. Occurs on water (excluding forced copulation). Female assumes prone position, male gives precopulatory pumping; grasps feathers on female's head with bill as he mounts. Following copulation, male may perform Bridling, Burp, and Turning-the-back-of-the-head displays.

Pursuit flights. Male(s) aerially chase female (Figure 3). Paired and unpaired males may instigate flights by pressing close to female. Flights are conspicuous because birds fly high, range widely, and can include as many as 16 birds; may last >30 min (Smith 1968b, Derrickson 1977). In central California during winter, most flights included 3–5 drakes/hen in Nov–Feb and ≥5 drakes/hen in Jan (Miller 1985b). On breeding grounds, 67% of flights included ≤3 drakes (Titman and Seymour 1981). Average duration of flights is longest of Anas species (winter: 2.2 min [Miller 1985b]; breeding: 1.5 min [Titman and Seymour 1981], 3.6 min [Derrickson 1977]).

On breeding grounds, Pursuit Flights are most frequent during laying; longer flights are more common during laying and are usually associated with forced copulations (Smith 1968b, Derrickson 1977). Compared to other Anas species during the breeding season, Northern Pintail males never chase other males, continue pursuits throughout the reproductive period, are less likely to return to origination of pursuit (58 vs. >75% in other species), and more often attempt forced copulations at the end of a pursuit (12.5 vs. <3% of pursuits) (Titman and Seymour 1981).

Extra-Pair Copulations

Most forced copulations (FCs) occur with females in the laying stage or early incubation; males initiate most FCs while their mates are laying (Derrickson 1977). Most FCs are usually preceded by vigorous and prolonged Pursuit Flight and occur on land (Derrickson 1977). In an FC attempt, male grabs part of the female plumage in his bill, tries to mount by grasping feathers on nape of the neck, treads with his feet, and droops wings to the sides of a female's body. After intromission, male may perform a postcopulatory display but usually swims or walks away with Tail Wag (McKinney et al. 1983).

Social and Interspecific Behavior

Degree Of Sociality

Generally gregarious throughout the year, but pairs tend to avoid conspecifics during laying (Derrickson 1977). Aggression toward other paired males is rare; never aggressive to unpaired males during the breeding season except during forced copulations (Titman and Seymour 1981, McKinney et al. 1983). Often associated in flocks of 2–5 males during late laying-early incubation period of mate. Generally forms large flocks on molting, migration, and wintering areas.


No information.

Nonpredatory Interactions

Some aggressive interactions with other ducks; most frequent with Northern Pintails and other Anas species (Hepp and Hair 1984). No apparent hierarchy.


Kinds Of Predators

Adults. Losses during breeding (primarily nesting hens) to red fox (Vulpes vulpes; Sargeant et al. 1984), mink (Mustela vison; Eberhardt and Sargeant 1977), Swainson's Hawk (Buteo swainsoni; Natl. Biol. Serv. unpubl. data), Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus; Murphy 1993b), large raptors (Richkus et al. 2005) and coyote (Canis latrans; Natl. Biol. Serv. unpubl. data). In N. Dakota, Northern Pintail is more vulnerable to red fox predation than other dabbling ducks because it nests in uplands and early in spring when other prey is less available, and has poorer nest cover; red foxes estimated to have taken nearly 16,000 Northern Pintails (75% females) in a 13,500-km2 area (Sargeant et al. 1984). In winter, Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus; Griffin et al. 1982), Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus; Dekker 1987), Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus; Godfrey and Fedynich 1987, Rave and Cordes 1993), and Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis; Rave and Cordes 1993) take adults.

Eggs. Losses to mink, raccoon (Procyon lotor; A. Perkins and R. McLandress pers. comm.), striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis; Fuller 1953, Duncan 1987b), arctic fox (Alopex lagopus; Flint and Grand 1996a), Black-billed Magpies (Pica pica; A. Perkins and R. McLandress pers. comm.), Common Raven (Corvus corax; Stiehl and Trautman 1991), and California (Larus californicus), Ring-billed (L. delawarensis), Glaucous (L. hyperboreus), and Mew (L. canus) gulls (Fuller 1953). Probable predators also include long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata), badger (Taxidea taxus), Long-tailed (Stercorarius longicaudus) and Parasitic (S. parasiticus) Jaegars, American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), and Franklin's ground squirrel (Spermophilus franklinii).

Ducklings. Losses to mink, Great Horned Owl (Murphy 1993b), Swainson's Hawk (Keith 1961, Murphy 1993b), Northern Harrier (Duncan 1983), and California, Ring-billed, and Glaucous gulls (Duncan 1986d, Grand and Flint 1996a).

Response To Predators

Duck may feign death (immobile with head extended, eyes open, and wings held close to body) when grasped by a fox (Sargeant and Eberhardt 1975). When threatened by a Northern Harrier, brood female stands alert and quacks (Duncan 1983) or gives Threat and Pursuit behaviors (Guinn and Batt 1985). Following partial clutch predation, females abandoned nests when only 3-4 eggs remained but typically continued to attend nests when 6-7 eggs remained (Ackerman et al. 2003).

Of several species tested, pintails demonstrated the strongest risk-averse behavior to threats of being shot by hunters (Ackerman et al. 2006).

Recommended Citation

Clark, R. G., J. P. Fleskes, K. L. Guyn, D. A. Haukos, J. E. Austin, and M. R. Miller (2014). Northern Pintail (Anas acuta), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.