Like the mallard, the northern pintail (Anas acuta) is found throughout most of North America and because of its striking markings is easily identified. After the mallard and perhaps the lesser scaup, it is either the second or third most abundant duck in North America.
Both the male and female have long, black central tail feathers, with those of a breeding male making up a quarter of its length. For me, that “pin” tail is a most distinguishing field mark. Although the male’s breeding plumage is also distinctive, the tail is a big clue for identifying a duck that is not politely remaining still for me to take a good look. I am not that accomplished a birder!
The breeding male pintail has a chocolate-brown head that often looks much darker, depending on the light. The underparts and neck are white with a white streak extending up from the neck. Its sides and upper back are gray and the rear end is black. The long lower back feathers have pale edges. He is a most handsome fellow. The bill is black, the legs are gray and the eyes are dark brown in both the male and female.
Females are a mottled dark brown above with a tan or buff head and breast. The chin is whitish. Males in eclipse (not breeding) and juvenile pintails resemble the female.
Pintails occupy a variety of habitats frequenting shallow freshwater and intertidal waters for breeding. They eat grain seeds, weeds, aquatic insects and crustaceans and snails, feeding by dabbling, picking seeds from agricultural lands, tipping in shallow water and filter feeding at the surface.
Northern pintails breed in Alaska, the northern tier of states, and Canada. They migrate to the Pacific Coast and the southern states for the winter. A large part of the pintail population winters in California. There are also many resident populations, particularly along the Pacific Coast and California. The pintail is one of the earliest birds to migrate in the spring and they often nest barely after the ice has melted.
These pintails were photographed at Baum Lake and Ash Creek Wildlife Area in CA. There were mallards swimming with the pintails at Ash Creek. I can tell that the female in the picture (with her partially hidden tail) is a pintail because the bill of a female mallard is orange.