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The Problem with Pintails

By Michael Furtman

In its northern and southern ranges, this beautiful duck is suffering from declining habitat.

I lay on my back, booted feet in the flooded rice field, the slope of the levee a perfect incline from which to watch birds. Ostensibly, I was here to hunt ducks, and my quivering black Lab, Rascal, could not understand why I wasn’t pulling the trigger.

But on this day, though bright and clear, I was witnessing a waterfowl spectacle too fabulous to ruin with the bark of my old Browning A5. From the west, a cloud of ducks had whirled toward me, a cyclone of pintails. Once over the rice paddy, the twister tightened, and then the ducks began to drop to the water. Hundreds. Perhaps thousands. I lay there and watched them plummet to the water, splashing into the decoys. Slim brown hens and striped drakes, gray leather legs hanging down, dropped from fantastic heights like thrill-seeking bungee jumpers. Their descent was so rapid, that elevator feeling welled up in my stomach. At first just specks, soon I could see the white bellies and long-tailed black butts of the drakes, and as they craned their heads to see the water beneath them, their black eyes flashed in their glorious chocolate heads. Finally, they halted their rapid fall, pumping cupped silver wings, iridescent green speculums shining.

In but a minute, they rained down around us, splashing into the shallow pond, filling the spaces between the decoys, packing the paddy. Rascal gave a frustrated whine, and with it, hundreds of duck heads shot up on stiffened necks.

I chuckled. The ducks had been caught with their pants down, so to speak, and they knew it. I never picked up the shotgun. As I sat up, I startled the birds and as quickly as the pintails had plummeted, they roared into the air.

Rascal shot me a dirty look. I chuckled again. There would be more birds, I told her, but what we had just seen was special, even if it meant going duckless.

I count myself fortunate to have witnessed what I did on that crisp morning, to almost feel their rapid descent, which is typical of this wonderful duck. Fortunate also, because this experience, which took place in the 1980s, would be hard to repeat today. Pintails are in trouble, their numbers are declining, and the reasons are as complex as the bird itself.

A Bird of Grace and Beauty

The northern pintail, Anas acuta, also known as sprig or spiketail, gets its name from the long, pointed tail feathers sported by the drake in its breeding plumage. Although four or five inches longer than mallards, pintails weigh about one-fifth less.

From the base of the chin to within a few inches of the black tail, the drake of this species is white underneath. A long white bar curves up the chocolate head to a point behind the drake’s eye. Flanks and wing tops are silver gray, with coverlets of long black-and-white striped feathers. Where a mallard’s secondary wing feathers would sport a blue patch — the speculum — the drake pintail’s is metallic green, trailed with a thin white bar. Combined, these beautiful markings give one the impression of a duck dressed up for a tie-and-tails gala.

One of the few duck species found in both the Old World and New World, most northern pintails nest in the famed Prairie Pothole Region. But significant numbers venture farther north to Alaska and even Siberia. Most common in the Central and Pacific flyways, pintails winter in California’s Central Valley, and the Gulf Coast and Panhandle regions of Texas.

Imprinted to the Shortgrass Prairie

During the last decade, water conditions across the Prairie Pothole Region have been good to excellent. Coupled with the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a farm policy that pays American farmers to put marginal land into grassy cover, these improved conditions in the Dakotas have led to robust rebounds in prairie-nesting duck populations.

Except for pintails.

Despite these favorable conditions, breeding pintail populations not only failed to rebound, they plummeted, decreasing by more than 50 percent during the last 20 years. Worse yet, they declined from more than 10 million birds in 1956 to a paltry 3 million in 2001. Biologists have formulated many theories, but the consensus is that agricultural practices on their prairie nesting grounds have led to poor reproduction.

“Farming practices on the prairie in the last 20 years or so have really changed, especially in Canada where most pintails nest,” says the chief biologist for Ducks Unlimited, Bruce Batt. “Thirty years ago, farmers grew a crop in a field for a year, then left it fallow (plowed) for a year. This led to concerns about soil erosion, and so farmers were encouraged to leave their harvested fields in stubble until the next planting.”

Pintails evolved to nest in shortgrass prairies, which are largely gone today. There are, however, millions of acres of stubble fields. Spurred by their genetic picture of what shortgrass habitat should look like, in the absence of true prairies, pintails flock to these stubble fields.

“To the pintail’s eye,” Batt, says, “these stubble fields look appealing. The problem is, two weeks after they’ve initiated nesting, the farmer comes out to disk and plant those fields, and all those nests are destroyed. Because we’ve been so responsible with soil conservation practices, we’ve set an ecological trap for pintails. To make matters worse, pintails have a very low proclivity to renesting, so once those nests are destroyed, they’re often done for the year.

“Unless you’re familiar with farming on the prairie, this change in agricultural practices may not sound like a big deal,” Batt continues. “But you have to understand there are millions and millions of acres of this kind of habitat.”

What about predation? Because of man-made changes, unnaturally high numbers of small-duck and egg-eating predators are found on today’s prairie. Predation may play a role in today’s pintail decline, but it is probably a minor one, compared to the changes in habitat. Predators can’t destroy what the farmer already has plowed under.

The Texas Connection

Are there other factors leading to this decline? Some biologists are concerned about the quality of wintering habitat, especially in the Central Flyway. Texas harbors up to 80 percent of the flyway’s pintails.

Brian Sullivan, the biological team leader for the Playa Lakes Joint Venture (PLJV), and former waterfowl program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, thinks agricultural practices in their breeding areas may not be the only factor limiting pintail populations. There may well be a problem in Texas, he says.

“I believe that habitat changes in migration and wintering areas are just as important,” Sullivan says. “These changes occurred rapidly during the mid- and late-1980s, the same period as the steepest decline in the pintail population.”

How can what happens in Texas affect pintail breeding, which takes place half a continent away?

Almost immediately upon reaching the breeding grounds, pintails are ready to initiate nesting. To do this, they not only must find adequate nutritional resources for the long flight north, they also must have stored enough calories for the rigorous biological task of laying eggs and incubating them. How well, then, a hen feeds in Texas and along stops on the flight north contributes significantly to how many eggs she can lay, and how viable they will be.

Studies conducted in California show that the pintails that winter there are actually in better shape than they were 20 years ago. Back then, farmers burned their rice stubble after harvest. Concerns over air pollution ended that practice. Today, farmers flood their fields, which keeps weeds from germinating until the next planting season. These flooded fields, with their waste grain, have proven a boon to Pacific Flyway pintails.

Such is not the case in Texas.

The largest concentrations of pintails in Texas are generally found in the rice-prairie portion of the Gulf Coast, as well as the playa lakes. While they winter in Texas, pintails seek out shallow wetlands with little emergent vegetation, and flooded agricultural fields are a favorite. According to Steve Cordts, assistant waterfowl program leader for TPWD, pintails were the most numerous duck in Texas this past winter. Some 400,000 wintered along the Gulf Coast, another 150,000 in the playas, 100,000 in the rolling plains, and 50,000 on the sand plains. As much as half of the northern pintail population of the entire Central Flyway wintered on the Texas rice prairies. These numbers serve to demonstrate just how important Texas habitat is to this struggling species, and in some cases, this habitat is disappearing.

“We’ve seen a 60 percent decline in rice acreage in the last 20 years,” says Bart Ballard, an assistant professor at Texas A&M-Kingsville, “and there probably will be fewer acres in the future. This is a significant loss of habitat in an area that was primarily prairie wetlands. Land-leveling practices mean that if these fields aren’t flooded for rice, they no longer return to wetlands. We’ve also lost a great amount of freshwater marsh along the coast. Where are these pintails going to go? There seems to be a high fidelity to wintering areas, and it is highest with those birds that winter on coasts.”

A few years ago, Ballard, an avid waterfowler, noticed that the birds he was shooting were slight of build compared to those of previous years. The coastal wetlands and rice prairie east of Houston and in southwestern Louisiana used to hold some of the largest wintering pintail populations anywhere. After the disappearance of rice fields and the destruction of native coastal marshes in this region, pintails switched to wintering in Laguna Madre, where they feed on the rhizomes of shoal grass. Spurred by his personal observations, Ballard conducted a study to evaluate the condition of these ducks. What he found is disturbing.

“When they arrive in Texas, pintails weigh about the same as they do in other wintering areas,” Ballard says. “But while here, they lose about 20 percent of their body mass. We found that, because of habitat quality, they’re only getting about half the calories of pintails in other wintering areas.”

Although it appears that in good years these birds can regain some of this body mass on stops during their northward migration, those habitats, too, are in peril, and their availability, as well as food production on them, depends highly on weather. If the pintails arrive at their nesting grounds in poor shape, nesting success suffers.

The playa lakes region also is an important wintering and migration stop for pintails, and the story there isn’t much better. Because of changes in irrigation practices, there is less water in the playas than ever before. Low aquifer levels and increased costs have led to a decline in irrigated acreage. Row-and-furrow irrigation, which produced a lot of runoff into playas, is being replaced by center-pivot sprinkler systems, which produce little runoff. Finally, siltation, primarily caused by cultivation in their watersheds, is reducing the length of time playas hold water.

The Upshot

It appears that conditions, north and south, are teaming up to deliver a double whammy to the graceful pintail. So what can be done?

In the north, Ducks Unlimited and its partners are promoting the planting of winter wheat. This crop is planted in the fall, and germinates before the onset of winter, during which it lies dormant. Come spring it sprouts, and when pintails fly north, instead of seeing a death-trap stubble field, they see a field of short green “grass.” Harvest of the winter wheat takes place well after the pintails have finished nesting.

“We reasoned that if there was a higher use of winter wheat, pintails would nest in it and have good success,” Batt says. “Our research shows this to be true. So now we have a major program to encourage people to use winter wheat. Although there are only several hundred thousands of acres of winter wheat now, we think that it has a chance in the next decade to become a common crop in prairie Canada.”

What about elsewhere?

“We need to improve their habitat range-wide,” Sullivan says. “In migration and wintering areas, there needs to be a significant increase in the amount of, as well as improved condition of, their preferred shallow, prairie wetlands. Land-leveling practices that have resulted in less natural water ponding in retired rice fields, and encroaching Chinese tallow trees, are problems we need to reverse. I don’t think we’ll see the population increase significantly until we improve the carrying capacity of migration and wintering areas for pintails. That will not be an easy task, and won’t be accomplished cheaply or quickly.”

Still, all is not gloom and doom. The Texas Prairie Wetlands Project (a partnership of Ducks Unlimited, TPWD, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Gulf Coast Joint Venture and others) has done a lot of great work for pintails in the Texas coastal region.

Under this program, cooperating landowners sign a 10- or 15-year wetland management agreement, and must maintain and manage the wetlands during that period. Partner agencies provide technical expertise and financial aid to the landowners, who reap the rewards of restored wetlands: more water on their land for livestock, replenishment of wells, flood control and much improved hunting. This highly successful project has enrolled more than 250 landowners and restored or enhanced more than 26,000 acres of habitat since 1991, at a current pace of 3,500 acres per year.

Other work is underway, too. Ballard and his students just completed the first year of a radio telemetry study that they hope will provide answers to the Texas pintail plight. Nearly 160 hen pintails were fitted with either radio or satellite transmitters and followed day and night to see which habitats they used. Such information is critical for determining where to put financial resources for management. A similar study is taking place in the playa lakes region.

These studies also monitor pintail mortality in Texas. While Ballard points out that the findings are still preliminary, it appears that pintails in the coastal region die at twice the rate of those in other wintering areas. Much of this mortality may be due to predation by peregrine falcons and other raptors, which also winter in the same areas.

Rice farming. Winter wheat. Land leveling. Poor diet. North and south, the trouble with pintails can be summed up in one word: habitat.

The pintail is not an adaptable species. Both winter and summer, it has very specific needs. This inflexibility may be its undoing, for so much of the habitat pintails have evolved with has — or is — disappearing. While some human-caused changes, such as rice farming in Texas, can partially make up for these lost native habitats, the future of rice farming in Texas is dictated by market prices. With the rising costs of water and increased foreign competition, rice acreage is declining. Nothing in the pintail’s evolution has equipped it to deal with market forces.

It is too early to tell if this graceful species ever will return to its former abundance. This much is for certain — there is nothing wrong with the pintails themselves. They know, as they always have, how to survive, and how to make more pintails. In a world that we have altered to our own tastes, however, they are struggling to find places where they can survive and prosper.

Only we can change that. Let’s hope we do.

2003 Nesting season bodes well for Pintails

After an unusually dry winter, duck production from the prairie pothole region of the United States and Canada looked bleak. But then came spring snowstorms and summer rain, and the picture brightened considerably.

“The rain came at a perfect time, and there was enough of it to really change the face of the prairies in both the United States and Canada,” says Bruce Batt, chief biologist for Ducks Unlimited. “Everyone expects the duck counts to be up dramatically over last year.”

Water doesn’t guarantee good nesting success.

Pintails fare well in the Dakotas, with their millions of acres of Conservation Reserve Program grasslands. In Canada, however, where nesting habitat is increasingly rare, their numbers have plummeted. This year may reverse that trend, because the same moisture that is good for ducks has also kept farmers from getting into their fields in the spring.

“We’ve had reports that in some parts of prairie Canada, farmers still didn’t get into their fields until as late as the third week in June,” Batt says. “What this means is that those pintails that were attracted to stubble fields may actually have had enough time to complete their nesting before the plows arrived. We’re hoping that the pintail’s strategy of nesting early and fledging quickly was aided by this year’s wet conditions.”

In addition to replenishing abundant wetlands, the snow and rain have improved the upland nesting cover. With abundant water late into the summer, those hens that have lost their first or even second nests may keep trying until they produce a brood.

According to Paul Schmidt, chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of Migratory Bird Management, both pond numbers and breeding duck numbers are way up this year. In the prairie pothole region, pond numbers have increased 91 percent in just one year — from 2.7 million ponds in 2002, to 5.2 million this year.

“Duck numbers appear to have held up pretty well, which was a bit of a surprise to us,” says Schmidt, referring to the spring breeding duck count conducted in May. “Our models had predicted, based on last fall’s harvest rates and last year’s poor production, that numbers would be lower.” Total duck numbers are up 16 percent from last year, going from 31 million birds to 36 million. That’s 9 percent above the long-term average.

“The count shows pintails up 43 percent from last year’s count of 1.8 million, but that’s a bit misleading,” Schmidt says. “There’s no way we had that kind of rebound. During last year’s count, the prairies were dry and the pintails overflew the region, so many simply weren’t around to be counted.”

The traditional survey is conducted by airplane on transects over the prairie pothole region, where counting the ducks is relatively easy. Although some survey work does occur in the forest regions, it is less intense, and the birds are much more difficult to spot.

In addition to not being counted in 2002, those pintails that flew farther north most likely didn’t reproduce.

“This year, those birds are back on the prairies and nesting, and there is increased optimism that we’ll see improved production,” says Schmidt. The real key, he says, is whether or not the nesting habitat is sufficient. Water is everywhere, but good cover is less abundant.

While much of this is good news, the pintail population is still a shadow of what it once was.

“Yes, we’ve gone from 1.8 million last year, to 2.6 this year,” cautions Schmidt, “but, as I said, it is my opinion that this jump isn’t real. But even taking those numbers at face value, pintails are still 40 percent below the long-term average.

“But the good news is, because the habitat conditions are much better, they’re ready to produce for next year. If there’s really going to be an increase, it won’t be seen until the 2004 survey.”

Playa Lakes Joint Venture Seeks Pintail Conservation Partners

The Playa Lakes Joint Venture (PLJV) facilitates partnerships to conserve habitat for birds in the Southern Great Plains. PLJV pintail conservation efforts include protecting playa wetlands and other important habitats, and sponsoring research to improve pintail conservation programs. One PLJV-funded study uses satellite telemetry to track pintails, and has provided new information on migration routes and nesting areas relative to wetland conditions. To follow the pintail migration from Texas, and to read biologists’ journals, visit <www.werc.usgs.gov/pinsat/index.html>.

The PLJV is seeking additional partners, including landowners willing to implement habitat projects and corporate sponsors. For further information on the PLJV, contact Bill Johnson, chair, Texas State Action Committee, 806-655-3782, bill.johnson@tpwd.state.tx.us, or visit <www.pljv.org>.

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