Nicknamed the “greyhound of the air,” the northern pintail is a sleek, narrow dabbling duck sporting long wings. The drake is easily recognizable by its distinctive black tail feathers, referred to as sprigs that protrude to the rear like pins, thus its common name. Pintails once were one of the most abundant ducks in North America but have suffered a disturbing decline since the 1950s and remain a species of concern to waterfowl managers.
While many of the dabbing duck species rebounded nicely in the last couple decades due to above average rainfall, Farm Bill Programs, and a changing predator community in their breeding grounds in the northern prairie pothole regions, pintails did not respond the same.
Texas has always been one of the major wintering ground states for pintails along with California and Louisiana. According to the annual Mid-winter Waterfowl Survey conducted by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas averages a little over 600,000 pintails wintering in Texas each year.
When continental pintail populations were last at high levels nearly a half century ago, more than 1 million northern pintails wintered along the Texas coast. A record high was recorded in 1999 of 1.8 million pintails. In stark contrast, 15 years later saw a record low of 173,000.
Pintails may be below long term average according to their historic breeding populations, yet they still are one of the most abundant ducks in Texas.
Flooded rice fields along the coastal prairies and shallow bays laden with shoalgrass beds offer these winter Texans the food sources they need. Freshwater ponds nearby enable pintails to purge themselves of the saltwater they consume, and back bay lakes, lagoons and estuaries provide safe havens for resting and roosting. Ducks often seek these habitats to strengthen pair bonds with their mate and to avoid human disturbance.
The challenge facing pintails, and other migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, is maintaining suitable habitat. Rice production once covered the Texas coastal grassland prairies from Houston through the mid-coast, but has steadily declined in recent decades due to land development, agricultural production costs and competing water demands.
Pintails are adapting to these ecological changes due to their nomadic migration style, and despite deficits for food abundance and availability along the Texas Gulf Coast, Texas still has an incredible abundance of fresh water available to pintails further inland in the Rolling Plains and Oaks and Prairies associated with nearly a million small manmade stock ponds. These ponds don’t experience the human disturbance like the bays, marshes, and rice fields of the Gulf Coast, and certainly don’t have the carrying capacity individually like a rice field or moist-soil managed wetland, but collectively they can support millions of birds throughout the winter period.
The good news is lots of pintails are still visiting Texas each winter and about half of the pintails still visit the Texas Gulf Coast. With the help of funding from passage of the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, habitat recovery efforts can ensure these majestic birds will continue to make their winter homes in Texas for years to come.
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Photo: George Gentry