Bird Watcher's General Store

“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

Pintail Ducks are Cool

Dear Bird Folks,

For the past few days there have been several Northern Pintails feeding in front of my house on Nauset Marsh. I have lived in this house for over ten years and this is the first time I’ve seen these cool ducks. I really enjoy watching ducks and would like to know if pintails are rare around here and if they are likely to nest nearby?

-Dave, E. Orleans


Yo Ducky Dave,

I’m glad you enjoy ducks and that you are paying attention to which birds are feeding in front of your house. I wish more people did that. Too many folks spend more time washing their windows than actually looking out them. Here’s another one. Have you ever seen those people who drive to the beach parking lot and sit in their car and read the newspaper? Doesn’t that bug you? Tons of great birds are flying by and these people are missing them because they are too busy reading Beetle Bailey or looking for sales at Sears. Newspaper reading should be done at home, as a way to block out the voices of other family members who insist on telling you about their day.

Northern Pintails are one of North America’s most common ducks and one of the most abundant waterfowl in the world, as they also thrive in Asia and Europe. Don’t let any of the information about their abundance dampen the thrill you are feeling about your sighting Ducky Dave. For all of their abundance, pintails are fairly rare on Cape Cod. Pintails like wide open areas. Bodies of water that are surrounded by grasslands, like those that are found out west, are their preferred habitat. The Cape Cod landscape is dotted with too many trees, houses and banks for their liking.

The male pintail is an extremely handsome duck. It’s not crazy flashy like the drake Wood Duck, it is more stately. The pintails ride high in the water. They have a graceful long neck, a warm brown head, and a white breast and neck, with a diagnostic spike of white shooting up the back of the head. There is one other important field mark with pintails that I can’t think of right how. Hmm. Give me a minute, I’ll come up with it. Oh yeah. They have extra long feathers sticking out of their tail, forming pintails. There, I knew I’d think of it.

In flight pintails are equally graceful. They are strong, agile flyers, giving them the folk name of “flying greyhounds.” However, pintails rarely, if ever, chase mechanical rabbits. They are one of the few birds that breed in the U. S. and fly to Hawaii for the winter. How they find those tiny islands in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean is a mystery of nature. These birds make that long trip each winter and return here in the spring with a crop full of pineapple. Pintails have many of the adaptive traits of the ubiquitous Mallard. They eat a variety of foods: grains, weeds, aquatic insects and crustaceans. They take advantage of a variety of habitats: small ponds, inland lakes and brackish bays. However, unlike the Mallard, pintails are a shy and wary bird. They like to keep a respectful distance from humans. And the drakes don’t quack. For all of their good looks, the male pintails have an embarrassing call. There is no manly duck “quack” for them. Instead they have a sissy little peeping call, sounding more like a cheap, child’s squeeze toy. This could help explain the reason for their shyness.

The North American population of Northern Pintails is in the millions, but it has been dropping in recent years. A great many pintails, as well as many other ducks, nest in the wetlands of the western prairies. Pockets of water called “prairie potholes” were left by the last ice age. These potholes produce so many ducklings each year that they are referred to as “America’s duck factories.” Unfortunately for the ducks, these prairies are also very fertile and farmers have taken over much of this land. Over half of the potholes have been filled in or have been altered so they are no longer useable for ducks. And the ducks that do try to nest, often end up at the wrong end of the farm machinery. That, combined with a series of droughts, has lead to a decline in our waterfowl population.

If this tread continues, even our duck factories will have to be outsourced. South Monomoy may have a few nesting pairs, but with scattered exceptions, there are no breeding pintails in Massachusetts or most of New England. You were lucky to see those pintails Ducky Dave. They probably won’t be staying. They may hang around a bit longer if you toss them out a couple of pineapples, but I wouldn’t count on it.