America’s First Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

There’s nothing like a flock of ducks to warm the homesick birder’s heart. Almost anywhere in the northern hemisphere, that flock is likely to include a familiar species or two, and the pleasure of recognition far outweighs the disappointment of discovering “just” a mallard or a gadwall or a scaup.

Northern Pintail

The northern pintail of Eurasia and America is now generally considered monotypic: that is to say, the populations of that species in the Old World and those in the New are said not to exhibit any consistent differences that would allow or require the naming of any subspecies. They are all simply Anas acuta, the “sharp-tailed duck.” It hasn’t always been so, however. At various times, various authors have split the Nearctic and the Palearctic birds into two races, the nominate form of Eurasia and the subspecies tzitzihoa of America.

Northern pintail, AOU IV

As the entry in the Fourth Edition of the AOU Check-list notes, that name was formally published for the first time by Vieillot, who described Anas tzitzihoa as a full species distinct from the European pintail with which it had been identified by RayBuffon and Latham.

Vieillot’s knowledge of his new species derived entirely from Francisco Hernández’s sixteenth-century account, published in the Thesaurus of 1651 — the first full description of a northern pintail ever from North America.

Hernandez, Thesaurus, northern pintail

On the male tzitzihoa. Chapter 104.

This is a type of wild duck, of the size of the domestic bird, with a blue bill of even length and moderate thickness, and with gray legs and webs; the head is fulvous and flecked with peacock green, but the necklace, breast, and the greater part of the body beneath are whitish, while the rest of the bird is of the color typically shown by goshawks, and whitish on each side next to the tail, which is white on the edges and black beneath, mottled with white, black, and fuscous above. The tail has two noticeably longer blackish feathers. The wings are silver-colored on the edges beneath and ashy in the center; they are also ashy above towards the shoulder, shimmering reddish, bright white, and peacock green. The hind wings are partly ashy, partly light green, and iridescent. The female is no different.

The tzitzihoa didn’t last long in systematic ornithology: first demoted to a subspecies, then synonymized out of existence when the northern pintail was finally deemed monotypic. But every once in a while, when a drake swims past with its goshawkly barring and the peacockish highlights glinting in its chocolate head, I like to whisper a single word.


northern pintail male feburary