Northern Pintail

Anas acuta



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Figure 4. Annual cycle of migration, breeding (eggs and young), and molt (male, female) of Northern Pintails

Annual cycle of migration, breeding (eggs and young), and molt (male, female) of Northern Pintails breeding in the Prairie Pothole Region of north-central U.S. and southern Canada. For variation among regions, see text and Appendix 1. Thick lines show peak activity, thin lines off-peak. Dashed line in Migration indicates molt migration.


Pair Formation

Begins fall-early winter; largely completed before birds arrive on nesting grounds. Progression of pairing during fall and winter varies with area, apparently related to males' attainment of Alternate plumage (mid-Nov) and possibly seasonal changes in sex ratios in flocks from predominantly males in early fall (Texas).

Central California: 55% paired by mid-Nov, 83% by mid-Dec, 93% by late Dec-Jan; 96% by mid-Feb (Miller 1985b). N. Carolina: 11% paired by Dec, 84% by Jan, 100% by Feb (Hepp and Hair 1984). Texas: 65–87% paired by Dec–Jan (Weller 1965b). Sinaloa, Mexico: proportion paired midwinter lower in dry years (9%) than during wet years (19–35%) (Migoya et al. 1994). Yucatán, Mexico: only 2.5% of females paired by Feb before late northward migration, but sex ratio is low at this time (33% males) with high proportion of juveniles (61%; Thompson and Baldassarre 1992). In California, evidence of assortative mating by age and relative body mass during fall and early winter period (Heitmeyer 1995).

Arrival On Breeding Grounds

See Appendix 1 for dates by region. In California, birds move to breeding areas in Mar (R. McLandress pers. comm.). Also see Migration: spring migration.


See Appendix 1 for initiation dates in various regions. Average nest-initiation period (time period over which nests are initiated) is 67 d in s. Alberta (Guyn and Clark 2000), 69 d in N. Dakota (Higgins et al. 1992a), 46 d in Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, AK (Flint and Grand 1996a), and 38 d in interior Alaska (Petrula 1994). In the Canadian prairie, nest-initiation period is 35–63 d (shortest in dry years; Duncan 1987b, Greenwood et al. 1995a); 50% of nests are initiated over a 26-d period (Greenwood et al. 1995a; Figure 4). Few pintails nest later than the summer solstice (Krapu 2000), but nesting may extend into summer during periods of favorable wetland conditions (RGC, unpubl. data).

Factors Affecting Initiation. In Canadian prairies, median nest-initiation date is negatively correlated to temperature (Drever and Clark 2007) and positively correlated to precipitation and number of seasonal ponds in May (Greenwood et al. 1995a). In California, Northern Pintails nest earlier in wet years and later in dry years (A. Perkins and R. McLandress pers. comm.). Arrival dates to nesting regions are similar among years, but nest initiations can be delayed or interrupted by as much as 3 wk by blizzards or severe cold and storms (Sowls 1955, Smith 1968b, Miller et al. 2005).

Adults (≥2 yr old) are first to nest and are largely responsible for the first peak in nesting; for first nests in se. Alberta, adults nest on average 5 d earlier than yearlings (Duncan 1987b). Yearlings seem to nest primarily in late Apr and May; in Jun only adults nest (probably renests).

First/Only Brood Per Season

Appendix 1. Only 1 report of hens renesting after losing newly hatched broods; 2 hens renested within 18 d (Sowls 1955).

Breakup Of Pairs

Males abandon mates in early incubation and begin aggregating in postbreeding flocks in early to mid-Jun; usually depart immediate breeding area by late Jun or mid-Jul.

Nest Site

Selection Process

Pairs make low, circling exploratory flights over nesting terrain and adjacent wetlands in early morning and evening, 3–6 d before egg-laying. Females initiate and lead these flights and inspection of nesting cover on ground (Derrickson 1977).

Microhabitat And Site Characteristics

Nests on ground, usually in residual cover of short grasses or other vegetation, in brush, or in open; rarely at edge of or over water. Characteristically nests in more open sites with less vegetative cover than other upland-nesting ducks (Stoudt 1971, Dwernychuk and Boag 1972b, Higgins et al. 1992a), but may nest in small patches of brush or dense cover; will use planted cover, but infrequently nests in idle grassland (Klett et al. 1988). Also nests on recently burned land (Keith 1961, Higgins 1986a). In prairies nests primarily in various native and introduced upland grasses, whitetop, cordgrass, rush, and annual weeds; also in brush such as snowberry (Symphocarpus) (Sowls 1955, Keith 1961, Stoudt 1971, Higgins et al. 1992a).

In Canadian prairies, prefers brush in native grassland; most nests are initiated in cropland, grassland, brush, and rights-of-way (Greenwood et al. 1995a, Devries et al. 2008, Kowalchuk 2012), probably reflecting local current lack of availability of other suitable habitats for nesting. In short-grass prairie region of s. Alberta, prefers to nest near shrubs and in natural depressions (Guyn 2000). In Alaska, nests in tidal areas associated with grasses and sedges; in upland areas associated with wild rye (Elymus), bluegrass (Poa), willow, Calamagrostis, birch (Betula), and crowberry (Petrula 1994, Grand et al. 1997, C. R. Ely pers. comm.). In California, nests in wild rye, saltbush (Atriplex), Baltic rush (Juncus balticus) (Hunt and Naylor 1955), and annual grasses (Lulium, Bromus, Agropyron) and sedges (A. E. Perkins pers. comm.). In Utah, nests in saltgrass (Distichlis), Bassia, Juncus, spike rush, bulrush, and willow (Williams and Marshall 1938, Fuller 1953).

Northern Pintail is the only dabbling duck that does not avoid tilled cropland (mainly grain stubble) for nesting (Klett et al. 1988, Richkus 2002). In N. Dakota, nests are found in higher densities than those of other upland-nesting ducks in standing stubble, mulched stubble, and summer fallow (Higgins 1977). Many of these nests occur early in nesting season and are destroyed with later cultivation and planting.

Tends to nest farther from water than other ducks. In short-grass prairie, most nests are within 1–2 km of water, with some as far as 3 km (Duncan 1987a, Guyn and Clark 1999).


Construction Process

Female may make several scrapes (preliminary nests), but final scrape is made 2–5 d before first egg is laid (Derrickson 1977). To construct preliminary scrape, hen drops forward on breast, pivots in a circle, and makes vigorous scraping movements with feet (Derrickson 1977). Nest-building is gradual, continuing through laying and incubation with addition of down and grasses or other vegetative material collected from area immediately around nest. Down is not deposited until third or fourth day of laying.

Structure And Composition Matter

Usually a simple bowl of grasses or other vegetative materials from around nest. May use old burrows or natural depressions; completed nest may be flush with or below ground level. When nesting in emergent wetland vegetation, may build up bowl on layer of dead vegetation from immediate area. Nest down appears dark grayish to light drab brown.


Outside diameter 19–26 cm; inside diameter 13–19 cm; height 0–18 cm; depth 6–10 cm (Fuller 1953). When threatened by tidal flooding, hens on Alaska coast build nest bowl up to 15 cm high (Hansen 1961b).


Limited information. Nests in short-grass prairie region were ~2 ºC cooler than random sites (25.4 ± 0.19 [SE] ºC versus 27.3 ± 0.20 ºC) during daylight but did not differ at night (Guyn 2000).

Maintenance Or Reuse Of Nests, Alternate Nests

Maintains nest during laying and incubation; no records of reusing nests.



Elliptical and subelliptical or long-oval (Bent 1923).

Size, Volume, Mass, And Composition

Egg size in se. Alberta: 52.7 ± 0.1 (SE) x 37.4 ± 0.1 mm (n = 166 clutches; Duncan 1987c), and mean egg volume was 39.85 cm3 ± 0.22 SE (n = 1,564 eggs, 220 clutches; Guyn and Clark 2000). In Utah: 53 x 38 mm (range 48.5–57.9 x 33.3–40.4 mm; n = 161 eggs); average unincubated mass 41.6 g (36.7–46.1 g, n = 33 eggs; Fuller 1953). In Minto Flats, AK: 53.7 ± 2.4 (SD) x 37.6 ± 1.2 mm (n = 806 eggs; Petrula 1994). In Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, AK: 54.0 ± 0.9 (SE) x 37.5 ± 0.1 (n = 448 eggs), average mass 42.8 ± 0.4 g (35.0–49.0 g, n = 60 eggs; C. R. Ely pers. comm.).

In Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, AK, mean egg volume was slightly smaller among yearling birds (37.56 cm3 ± 0.35 SE) when compared with adults (38.83 cm3 ± 0.36), did not vary with initiation date or clutch size, and was highly repeatable among females (Flint and Grand 1996b). Mass of 10-egg clutch equal to 55% of hen's prelaying body mass. In s. Alberta, egg size does not differ between adults and yearlings, nor is it related to laying date or clutch size (Duncan 1987c).

Eggs from Canadian prairies averaged 69.7% water and 12.7% lipid; the latter was 2–4% lower than lipid levels in other Anas species (Vermeer and Reynolds 1970). Shell volume (length x width2/1,000) in se. Alberta: 73.8 ± 0.4 cm3 (n = 166 clutches; Duncan 1987c). In coastal Alaska: 76.2 ± 7.0 cm3 (n = 806 eggs; Petrula 1994).

Color And Surface Texture

Color pale olive green to greenish buff, grayish buff, and pale olive-buff; easily mistaken for Mallard, Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata), or Oldsquaw Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis). Shell smooth.

Eggshell Thickness

Pre-DDT: 0.273 (0.240–0.303) mm (n = 20 clutches, 165 eggs; Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology [WFVZ]). No post-DDT data.

Eggshell Weight

Pre-DDT: empty shell weight 3.26 g (range 2.79–3.63 g, n = 20 clutches, 165 eggs; WFVZ). No post-DDT data.

Clutch Size

Range 3–12 eggs. See Demography and Populations: measures of breeding activity.


One egg laid/d in early morning (Sowls 1955), with most clutches completed in 7–9 d. First egg is laid while nest is still just a scrape. If nest is lost during laying, female may continue laying in a new scrape the next morning (Derrickson 1977). Interval between loss of nest in incubation and resumption of egg-laying increases with length of time first nest was incubated and previous clutch volume; range 4–35 d, usually 6–15 d (Fuller 1953, Sowls 1955, Smith 1968b, Duncan 1987b, Guyn and Clark 2000). Factors affecting renesting and its occurrence are uncertain (see Demography and Populations: measures of breeding activity).

Egg dumping rare. Northern Pintail eggs have been found in nests of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis), Mallards, and Redheads (Weller 1959b).


Onset Of Broodiness And Incubation In Relation To Laying

The traditional view holds that incubation begins within 24 h of last egg laid. However, females rapidly increase the time spent on the nest during egg-laying, and maximum egg temperatures typically reach levels sufficient for embryonic development as soon as in early laying (Loos and Rohwer 2004).

Incubation Patch

One, on female.

Incubation Period

Twenty-two to 24 d.

Parental Behavior

Only female attends the nest. She takes one recess in early morning (predawn) and a longer one in late evening (Fuller 1953, Derrickson 1977, Afton 1978), although a range of 0-8 recesses per day has been reported in North Dakota with an daily average of 2.7 recesses (Hoover 2002). Females in Alaska average 22.2 ± 4.8% of day off nest (n = 22; Burris 1991), whereas incubation constancy (time on nest) averaged 81.6% ± 0.3 SE in North Dakota (Hoover 2002). On flights to and from nest, female flies low, close to land contours, making her difficult to observe; lands away from nest and walks in. During early laying, male often accompanies female on flight to nest but does not land. Males remain alone on nearby wetlands during laying, but join with 2–4 other males as females begin incubating (Derrickson 1977).

Hardiness Of Eggs

High tolerance for extreme, short-term cooling. Some nests have successfully hatched after enduring snow cover and nights at <-5°C (Keith 1961). In coastal Alaska, several nests that were flooded during incubation for >1 h in 13°C water successfully hatched (Hansen 1961b, Flint and Grand 1996a). Egg temperatures during last half of incubation averaged 37.9°C and fluctuated between 21.0 and 41.9°C during recesses (Afton 1978).


Eggs usually pip and hatch within 24 h of one another, with no assistance from female. Eggshells detached from shell membrane and remain in bottom of nest bowl.

Young Birds

Condition At Hatching

Precocial and nidifugous (mobile and leave nest within 24 h of hatching). In s. Manitoba, day-old ducklings averaged 25.5 ± 1.1 g (SE) (19.5–32.3 g, n = 19; Smart 1965a); in Utah, 26.8 g (19.0–30.9 g, n = 25; Fuller 1953). Mean exposed culmen 13.70 ± 0.74 mm (SD) (range 12.00–15.50, n = 46 ducklings from 12 broods); tarsus 24.00 ± 1.72 (20.00–28.50; n = 52 ducklings from 14 broods) (Nelson 1992a). Hatchlings are fully covered with natal down (see Appearance: molts and plumages).

Growth And Development

Mass increase. Average body mass of captive ducklings (mean ± SD [n]): 1 d: 28 ± 3.0 g (15); 1 wk: 60 ± 12.1 g (9); 2 wk: 136 ± 17.3 g (7); 3 wk: 248 ± 21.5 g (4); 4 wk: 331 ± 38.0 g (4); 5 wk: 443 ± 36.9 g (4); 6 wk: 599 ± 20.5 g (4); and 7 wk: 679 ± 35.4 g (4) (Southwick 1953), with no linear measurements reported. Plumage development and growth of body mas and several body components reported for a small sample of captive pintail ducklings by Blais et al. 2001.

Molt into Juvenile Plumage. See Appearances: molts and plumages.

Control of Body Temperature. No direct information. Probably similar to Mallard, also an early nester, in which ability to thermoregulate quickly develops during first day after hatching (Untergasser and Hayward 1972).

Behavior and Locomotion. Generally led from nest as soon as down has dried. If hatching occurs in late afternoon, hen may brood young overnight on nest and lead them to water early the next morning. Day-old ducklings can walk or run from nest, follow adult over land and water, and feed on surface aquatic insects within hours of hatching. Brood may cluster around hen or freeze when disturbed; may move away from disturbance if guided by hen, if intruder leaves, or if hen calls (Sowls 1955). See also Sounds: vocalizations.

Because nests are often far from water, long overland movements of broods from nest site to water are common and do not deplete major energy reserves of newly hatched ducklings or slow their subsequent growth (Duncan 1987a). Movement among ponds during brood-rearing is common (Guyn and Clark 1999, Peterson 1999).

Parental Care


Hen attends brood for 4–6 wk after hatching; usually abandons brood by the time young can fly. Male rarely accompanies hen with brood (Fuller 1953). Hen may perform distraction behaviors (e.g., splashing as if with broken wing, active swimming around intruder), fly around, or become aggressive to intruders in defense of brood (Bent 1923, Sowls 1955, Duncan 1983). Brood female devotes up to 35% of time to parental-care behaviors (lead, follow, alert); seldom leaves brood unattended (Guinn and Batt 1985).


Ducklings feed without assistance from adult.

Parental Carrying Of Young

No reports.

Cooperative Breeding

None reported.

Brood Parasitism

Identity Of The Parasitic Species

Nests are parasitized by Redheads, Ruddy Ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis), Mallards, Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula), and Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors) (summarized by Weller 1959b); also by Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus; Fuller 1953, Rienecker and Anderson 1960).

Frequency Of Occurrence, Seasonal Or Geographic Variation

Rate of parasitism is probably related in part to nest location: more nests were parasitized on islands (12/17) than on peninsulas (0/14) (Lokemoen 1991), upland nests infrequently parasitized (Guyn and Clark 2000).

Effects Of Parasitism On Host

Parasitism reduces hatching success (proportion of eggs laid that hatch; 28–50% for parasitized nests vs. 66% for unparasitized nests; Joyner 1976) and clutch size (5.4 eggs vs. 8.0; Lokemoen 1991, but see Joyner 1976), but does not increase nest loss through abandonment or predation (Joyner 1976, Lokemoen 1991).

Success Of Parasites With This Host

Joyner (Joyner 1976) found that 25% of Redhead eggs and 92% of Ruddy Duck eggs hatched from parasitized Northern Pintail nests.

No information regarding brood parasitism after hatching.

Fledgling Stage

See Young Birds, above.

Immature Stage

Activities, movements, and dispersal of young immediately after fledging are poorly known except from direct band recoveries. Ducklings banded in N. and S. Dakota, Minnesota, and Manitoba are usually recovered in the state or province in which they were banded; ducklings from Alaska, Alberta, and western Saskatchewan recovered in Pacific Flyway, particularly California (Lensink 1964). Immature males banded at Los Banos Wildlife Area in central California wandered farther in fall than immature females, but there was no sex difference for immatures banded in Sacramento Valley of California (Rienecker 1987a). Some birds move north between Aug and Oct from California banding sites into Idaho, Alberta, and British Columbia (Rienecker 1987a).

In winter, habitats and distribution are similar to those of adults.

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.