Pintail Trax

Northern Pintail Satellite Telemetry Study

Photo: Pintail on the water.  Copyright John R. Ford.The steady decline of Northern pintail (Anas acuta) populations is a serious concern for sportsmen, birders, conservationists, and waterfowl managers. Once the second most abundant waterfowl species, breeding population estimates of pintails have dropped from 10.3 million birds to 3 million over the past four decades and have remained below the level set by the North America Waterfowl Management Plan. During the same time, the number of Northern pintail counted in the Atlantic Flyway Midwinter Survey dropped from 250,000 in the late 1950's to currently below 50,000 (Figure 1, Figure 2). Despite their low numbers, pintail remain a highly regarded species among hunters and bird watchers.

Pintails have the widest breeding range of any of the dabbling duck species, extending from Siberia to the Maritime Providences of Canada. Pintails are generally a prairie nesting species, nesting in short grass prairies and agricultural stubble. Recent research suggests that significant numbers of pintails may over-fly the prairies when nesting conditions there are poor. In addition, subpopulations may nest outside the traditional "duck factory" of the Prairie Pothole Region. For mallards, it has been demonstrated that mid-continent birds only partially reflect the true population dynamics of mallards in the Atlantic Flyway. This may also be true for pintail. However, the relationship between Atlantic Flyway pintails to the continental population is not clear. For example, less than 4% of the pintails banded in Canada and less the 8% of the pintails banded in the continental U.S. are recovered in the Atlantic Flyway. In addition, very few pintails are banded in the eastern U.S. Questions remain as to whether Western pintails represent only a portion of the pintails on the East Coast, and if population dynamics, harvest, and survival are different for Eastern pintails.

In an effort to gain insight into the Atlantic Flyway pintail's population status and their relationship to the continental population, VDGIF is participating in an Atlantic Flyway study tracking hen pintails with satellite transmitters. The objectives of this study are three-fold:

  • To assess breeding ground affiliations of female pintails wintering in the Atlantic Flyway.
  • To describe the chronology of pintail migration.
  • To identify important spring and fall staging and/or stopover areas used during migration.
Photo: Hen Pintail with radio transmitter


The use of satellite technologies is relatively new to waterfowl managers and is proving to be an increasingly important tool for studying bird movements. Advances in electronics and access to satellites has allowed biologists to track wildlife over greater distances or even from their desk. Three ARGOS satellites orbiting the earth detect the locations of a transmitter attached to the waterfowl being studied. The signals are then converted into location data and relayed to researchers via the Internet. In the winter of 2004, 39 transmitters were placed on hen pintails from Florida to New Jersey. Virginia was responsible for three pintails. Only hen pintail are being monitored since females usually return to their natal area to nest. Males follow the females from the wintering ground to the breeding grounds.

Since these birds will have to travel large distances, the transmitter units have been made as small and as light as possible. The transmitters are attached by a backpack-style harness made of Teflon ribbon. Each transmitter weighs approximately 20 grams and also includes a 0.5 gm UHF transmitter that can be located with a hand held receiver to facilitate retrieval. This will help determine causes of transmitter loss or bird mortality. Each transmitter has a battery life expectancy of one year, which will allow us to collect data on spring and fall migration, and breeding and wintering locations. Pintails were captured after the hunting season using bait traps and rocket nets on USFWS National Wildlife Refuges (NWR), VDGIF wildlife management areas (WMA), and private land.

Pintails in Virginia

Photo: Rocket net site at Hog Island WMALarge concentrations of pintails in Virginia can often be found at Chincoteague NWR, Princess Anne WMA, and Hog Island WMA. Chincoteague NWR has an aggregation numbering up to 4,000 birds. The large moist soil impoundments provide vegetation and aquatic invertebrates for wintering and migrating birds. The marshes on Back Bay, and impoundments on Back Bay NWR and Princess Anne WMA, are very important to pintails wintering and migrating through southeast Virginia. The complex of impoundments on Hog Island WMA is especially attractive to migrating waterfowl. Smaller numbers of pintails are often found scattered around the various drainages in the coastal plain including the Pamunkey and James Rivers.


We thank the Virginia State Chapter of Ducks Unlimited, USGS, New York Cooperative Fisheries and Wildlife Research Unit, at Cornell University, and volunteers for their contributions and assistance.

Study Partners/Waterfowl Tracking Links