Arlie (A.W.) Schorger, 2018 inductee into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame and author of historical accounts on Wisconsin’s wildlife species, described the arrival of the pintails thus: “The sight of a flock of pintails flying low over a marsh on a March morning renders the observer oblivious to chilling winds. The long neck, long tail and white underparts of the male produce the mirage of a frigate under full sail.” Pintails were called sprigs by early hunters in the 1800s with "sprig" being short for "sprig-tail.
Pintails, of course, are named for their elongated central tail feathers, which constitute one-fourth of the drake's body length. Pintails are a prairie species and Wisconsin is at the southeastern fringe of their breeding range. Northern pintails have the widest distribution of any waterfowl species world-wide and are also found in Europe, the Middle East, India, and Asia. They migrate long distances and there is a report of a pintail that flew nonstop for 1,800 miles. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated pintail numbers in 2017 at 2,900,000 compared to a long-term average of 4,000,000.
Pintails are the earliest nesting duck in North America and nest farther from water than other ducks. The female likes to nest in an open area with short vegetation. In the Dakotas and Canada pintails like to nest in winter wheat fields.
We noticed the first pintails at Goose Pond this year on March 5 while driving along Kampen Road adjacent to our flooded food plot. As we went by hundreds of ducks near the road rose in a dense cloud. What stood out was a flock of 25-30 pintails; as usual drakes outnumbered hens. There were around 2,000 ducks, including over 1,900 mallards along with a wood ducks, black ducks, and green-winged teal in shallow water feasting on sunflower and foxtail seeds.
Sam Robbins in 1991 wrote in Wisconsin Birdlife that pintails are common migrants and uncommon summer residents. “Usually sprigs reach most southern areas by March 20th…” With the rain and warm temperatures in late February and early March waterfowl returned to Goose Pond much earlier than usual. Pintails also stop at Goose Pond in fall migration. The highest number of pintails recorded at Goose Pond was our October 25, 2008 observation of 120 pintails.
In 1973, March, Martz, and Hunt estimated an annual average breeding population of 1,300 pintails in the Badger State. Their breeding numbers in Wisconsin have been on the decline since the 1970s and 1980s. The first breeding bird atlas project (1995-2000) contained only one confirmed nesting report – a brood in Burnett County. We obtained a record of a pair that probably nested near Poynette and another possible nesting occurred in Ozaukee County during the first atlas project. After the third year of Atlas II, there have been no confirmed nesting records for pintails in Wisconsin.
The pintails are one of our favorite ducks. Sue enjoyed spending many hours carving and painting a full-sized drake pintail in breeding plumage.
This year the water levels are very high in southern Wisconsin and hopefully there will be pairs observed in May and a few broods observed in June. We hope you can visit Goose Pond in spring migration and enjoy the sprigs.
Written by Mark Martin and Sue Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident managers