Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
Iowa’s spring waterfowl migration is one of the most anticipated events on my annual outdoor calendar. During the next several days, more than two dozen species of northbound ducks, geese, and swans will visit our local wetlands. Dressed in their finest nuptial plumage, the feathery web-foots are a sight to behold. And although each species is unique in shape, color, and behavior; I enjoy observing pintail ducks as much as any.
It would be hard to mistake the pintail for any other duck. Elegant in design, the species derives its name from the drake’s elongated tail feathers which form a distinctive dart-like “pin”. Sleek and aerodynamic, pintails are the masters of high speed flight. Pintails are early migrants. While enroute to northern nesting grounds, several males will compete for the attentions of a single hen. Although drakes may conduct some impressive water displays, the real show begins when the competitions become airborne.
Courtship flights typically consist of one female and six to eight competing drakes. Once initiated, the flight quickly becomes a warp speed, wing tip to wing tip, precision drill. Poetry in motion, the exhibition is nothing short of a dazzling aerial ballet. The hen plays the role of orchestra conductor as she leads the flock in a blistering series of intricately choreographed twists, turns, climbs, and dives. It’s a stunning performance that leaves earth bound human observers with an overwhelming sense of awe.
Courtship flights may last from several minutes to an hour or more and often conclude with a return to the same marsh where they began. Once the flock has landed, competition continues as each drake strives to out show its rivals. Meanwhile, the hen appears unimpressed; feigning a detached indifference to the entire performance. In reality, she is paying close attention to her suitors’ every move. Female pintails possess a strong instinct to return to the place of their birth; and before reaching her predetermined destination, each hen will have chosen her mate.
Champions of flight, pintails have been known to literally travel the globe. Pintails banded in southern Canada have been reported from as far away as Hawaii, South America, and Japan. While hunting ducks at Myre Slough [near Forest City], Clear Lake’s Jerry Lindsay once bagged a pintail drake that had been banded in England.