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Scientists Study the Long and Short of Pintail Duck Migration
Released: 10/15/2002

Contact Information:
U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
Office of Communication
119 National Center
Reston, VA 20192
Joe Fleskes 1-click interview
Phone: 707-678-0682 x628

Mike Miller
Phone: 707-678-0682 x618

Gloria Maender
Phone: 520-670-5596

News Editors: Interactive pintail migration maps can be viewed at:
Photos can be downloaded from:
(Truck with radio-tracking antennae. Photo by Michael Miller, USGS)
(Rocket net. Photo courtesy Gary Zahm, USFWS)
(Pintail duck with radio transmitter. Photo courtesy Gary Zahm, USFWS)
(Released pintails with satellite transmitters. Photo by Joe Fleskes, USGS)

On September 23, pintail 17530’s backpack transmitter beamed a signal from the southwest coast of Alaska to a satellite. She was flying south, 272 days after USGS scientists equipped her with a PTT, or platform transmitter terminal, last winter in California’s Central Valley, where nearly half of North America’s pintails winter.

Back in Dixon, Calif., waterfowl biologists at the U.S. Geological Survey have followed pintail 17530’s travels via an interactive computer map. Her route appears as a series of red dots linked by directional arrows. One map each documents the migratory route of 30 female pintails that left the valley wearing PTT’s in mid-February, northbound for nesting grounds.

"The pintails we have tracked over the past three years by satellite migrate many hundreds of miles along the Pacific flyway to nesting destinations ranging from the prairies of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan to Alaska, and even Russia," said USGS wildlife biologist Michael Miller of the Western Ecological Research Center.

An international team of waterfowl biologists and technicians from USGS, Ducks Unlimited, Inc. (DU), DU Canada and the California Waterfowl Association (CWA), funded primarily by the Tuscany Research Institute of Las Vegas, Nev., is using satellite telemetry to determine migration routes and identify major resting areas of these birds. Miller leads this research effort, assisted by Dr. Joe Fleskes and several other USGS biologists and geographic information system technicians in the every day running of the study. By piecing together what they learn from this study with additional studies using standard radio telemetry the scientists hope to learn if unknown factors are affecting this species’ decline.

"Persistent drought, large populations of alien predators and conversion of native prairie to farming in critical nesting regions of southern Canada and the northern Great Plains in the U.S. have resulted in repeated pintail nest failures over many decades," said Fleskes.

As recently as the 1970’s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated a North American breeding population of 5 to 7 million pintails in principal nesting areas. By 1991 and again in 2002, however, the pintail breeding population dipped to an all-time low of 1.8 million.

One of the most widely distributed ducks in the world, the pintail is a medium-sized duck with slender, elegant body lines. Pintails are "dabbling ducks" and forage on grains, marsh plant seeds, and aquatic invertebrates throughout fall and winter.

"During the non-nesting seasons, pintails must replenish their body reserves to be able to survive winter, migrate north again the following spring, and produce young," said Fleskes.

Until the 1980’s, said Fleskes, midwinter populations of pintails in California’s Central Valley reflected the overall population trend. Since then, however, declines have been greater in the southern regions of the Central Valley (San Joaquin Valley), than in northern areas (Sacramento Valley). To understand this disproportionate decline, Fleskes with Dr. Dave Gilmer, also a USGS research biologist, and Dr. Robert Jarvis from Oregon State University, fit radio transmitters to the backs of 419 young and adult female pintails and followed them for three consecutive winters.

The three scientists found that neither contaminants nor disease, but a redistribution, accounted for the disproportionate declines in wintering pintails in the southern Central Valley.

"Over 80 percent of the tagged pintails shifted each midwinter from areas in the south having less abundant habitat for food and refuge, to locales in the Sacramento Valley more favorable for their survival," said Fleskes.

The change each winter in pintail distribution appears to be related to loss of suitable habitat, drought conditions and the lesser quality habitat of cotton-farmed lands in the San Joaquin Valley, which lacked winter flooding, in contrast to the flooded rice lands of the Sacramento Valley, said Fleskes.

Spring migration to nesting regions begins as early as February and is well under way by March. Pintails begin to arrive in prairie nesting areas at the end of March or early April. By May, females will be incubating their eggs in nests they built on the ground of short grasses and brush. They lead their 8-12 ducklings, which hatch together in one day, to water. There they feed on mostly aquatic invertebrates till fledging by July or August.

For the spring 2003 migration, the team of scientists will outfit 30 adult female pintails with PTT’s in the Sacramento Valley. Like last winter, the team will tag an additional 10 birds in central New Mexico and 20 in Texas, to add birds to the study that winter in the Central Flyway. After trapping crews release the birds, Miller receives satellite data on each bird’s movements every three days through the following August, or until the transmitters quit.

"The first stop or staging area for more than 75 percent of the pintails is northeastern California and southern Oregon, where they build body reserves for their remaining migration," said Miller. "They remain there for as little as a few days up to two months, depending on the migration routes ultimately used."

The team pinpoints specific habitats the ducks use at this staging area by fitting additional ducks with standard radio transmitters and following them from the ground. Obtaining day and night locations for each duck in spring 2002, the researchers determined specific habitat use for over 80 percent of 150 radio-tagged pintails.

"The satellite and standard radio data have revealed key staging areas in northern California and southern Oregon," said Dr. Fritz Reid, DU’s director of conservation planning for the western United States. "Organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can now focus protection and restoration efforts on these areas with the aid of private landowners and state agencies. The pintail satellite data have further provided insight into critical areas of the prairies and western boreal forest that warrant protection," Reid added.

Upon leaving southern Oregon and northeastern California, about 40 percent of the pintails fly directly to southern Canada, followed by an additional 25 percent that use one or more additional resting areas along the way, said Miller. Yet another 25 percent head for Alaska, traveling along the coast or directly over the Pacific Ocean, a trip of more than 2,000 miles. The remaining 10 percent fly to the Dakotas.

Miller directed field technicians to nearly 100 stopover areas to document habitat use and behavior of pintails during the first two years of the project. "Pintails observed near the tagged hens used a variety of habitats ranging from stock ponds to tundra," said Miller, "with greater use of private than public lands."

One of the principal pintail nesting regions is the Prairie Pothole Region, located in the Dakotas, northeastern Montana and the southern prairie provinces of Canada. "Prairie drought has prevailed each year of the study period, and most of the satellite tracked pintails flew on to areas farther north," said Miller. The birds migrating directly to Alaska, however, another critical nesting region, were not affected by prairie drought.

Above-average rainfall in southern Alberta and southern Saskatchewan this summer after the pintails’ passage, gives Miller and the team cause to believe they may find pintails nesting there next spring.

"If the wetlands are replenished and uplands have enough cover to attract pintail females next March and April, we can expect a high proportion of tagged pintails to stop in the prairie region, rather than continue on farther north."

To learn more about pintail migration and the pintail satellite study, please visit "Discovery for Recovery" at http://www.werc.usgs.gov/pinsat/.

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