US Fish & Wildlife Service


Date of this Version

January 1991


Published in Diana H. Cross and Paul Vohs (eds.) Waterfowl Management Handbook. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1991. Online at


The northern pintail (hereafter pintail) is a common dabbling duck distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Since 1955, the breeding population in North America has averaged 5,566,000, fluctuating between 10,124,000 (1956) and 2,471,000 (1989; Fig. 1). Pintail numbers are especially sensitive to habitat conditions that reflect the wet–dry cycle in the shortgrass prairie breeding areas of south-central Canada and the northern Great Plains of the United States. Populations of pintails also are affected by habitat conditions in key wintering areas, such as the Central Valley of California and Gulf Coast marshes. When wintering areas are fairly dry, birds have fewer resources and subsequent spring recruitment is lowered.

Through the 1970’s, continental populations recovered when wetland conditions on breeding and wintering areas were good but fell when the prairies were dry and wetland conditions in wintering areas were poor. Unfortunately, habitat losses and degradation of prairie habitats caused by agricultural practices have coincided with prolonged drought since the early 1980’s. This combination of detrimental factors resulted in declining pintail numbers in the past decade. The long-term downward trend in pintail numbers has focused renewed attention on this species.

This leaflet describes aspects of pintail life history that may be important for pintail management. It is not intended as a general reference on pintail biology. Readers interested in this should consult Bellrose (1980).