Home Away From Home
NORTHERN PINTAILS overwinter on the Texas coast and Panhandle.
When the iconic northern pintail decides it’s time to fly south for the winter, Texas provides a primary home away from home. The ducks use the Central Flyway as they move each fall from the artic tundra and northern prairies to the marshes, rice fields and coastal waters of the Lone Star State.
The birds arrive as early as August — they are some of the earliest migrants — and stay until February or March, when they return to the northern areas. They are fast and graceful fliers.
“The northern pintail is a very beautiful duck,” says Kevin Kraai, waterfowl program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “The males are elaborately colored with a brown head, long neck, a real pretty bill with some blue markings on it, and a pure white chest that stands out from a long way off when they sit on the bank.”
The drake, or male duck, has a characteristic pintail, which consists of long, pointed feathers 5 or 6 inches long. The females are more earth-toned in brown and gray; the subdued coloring helps them remain camouflaged and avoid predators, especially in the nesting season.
The male gives a fluty whistle, and the female quacks. They are dabbling ducks, tipping themselves headfirst into shallow water to reach the leaves and seeds of aquatic plants to eat.
While in Texas and other winter ranges, they start to pair up. Pair formation continues during spring migration. In their northern habitats, they may start to nest as soon as the ice thaws. Females build nests in open areas, often near water. The female lays about eight eggs. The ducklings can fly five to seven weeks after hatching.
Pintails are one of the most abundant duck species in North America, but their numbers have been in decline for decades, and they remain a species of concern to waterfowl managers. The pintail population has dropped from more than 10 million to 3 million over the past 40 years, attributed in part to the loss of prairie habitat and predation.
As a major wintering ground for the pintails, Texas sees about 600,000 of the ducks each year, according to TPWD surveys. When the pintails fly south, they look for shallow wetlands, prairies, lakes, rice fields or any flooded agricultural fields and bodies of water such as Texas bays. In addition to the coast, the Texas Panhandle provides winter habitat for the birds.
A steady decline in rice production in Texas has meant fewer habitat options for pintails. TPWD has been working with private landowners in Texas to create the right habitat for migrating northern pintails. Landowners learn how to prepare their property by managing water levels and planting desirable plants.
“We spend as much time as we possibly can, doing research, assisting landowners with habitat management,” Kraai says.
With the help of funding from passage of the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (learn more at www.txwildlifealliance.org), under consideration by Congress, habitat recovery efforts can ensure these majestic birds will continue to make their winter homes in Texas for years to come.
Dennis Stewart | naturesrealm.net
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