Friendly and energetic birds, Willie wagtails, or Willy wagtails are present in every part of Australia, except on Tasmania, and are known for their noisy defence of their home territory, as well as their perfectionism when it comes to constructing a nest.
Read on to learn more about the clever crafting techniques practised by Willie wagtails, and their natural instinct to build and rebuild the perfect nest in which to lay their eggs.
Nest sites chosen by Willie wagtails include horizontal branches or forks of trees, and on rafters, beams, or other similar structures. Nests are generally no more than 5 m (16 ft) above ground level, and are most frequently found in trees or shrubbery, but do not need to be sheltered by dense foliage.
Willie wagtails are widespread throughout Australia, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and parts of Indonesia. Breeding pairs are present in all habitats except the densest forest environments. Common and somewhat feisty garden visitors, it is not unusual for Willie wagtails to nest in close proximity to human habitation.
Willie Wagtail in the nest with chicks
Willie wagtails’ nests are rounded, cup-shaped creations, neatly woven from strands of dried grass, shreds of bark, and small twigs. The exterior of the nest is covered with spiders’ webs, while the inside is lined with soft grasses, hair, or animal fur that is sometimes plucked directly from horses’, cows’ and even alpacas’ backs.
Nest construction will typically begin in July, with the breeding season extending until January, although between August and December is most common.
Close up of a Willie wagtail nest on a branch
Incubation lasts for approximately 14 days, and is shared between the female and male Willie wagtail. Once hatched, chicks are fed and cared for in the nest for another 14 days by both parents before fledging.
During this period, construction may have already started on a new nest for the next brood. Willie wagtails regularly reuse their nests for second and subsequent broods, so once fledglings have left the nest, it is not uncommon for a new clutch to already be in progress.
Female Willie Wagtail sat on her nest
Both male and female Willie wagtails work together to construct their nests, shaping and tightly weaving strands of grass tightly to form a neat cup. Making use of naturally available materials in their territorial ranges, birds may even collect hair or fur from animals grazing nearby or pet dogs and cats in order to line the interior of nests with the softest substances.
Willie wagtails may abandon nest-building before it is complete if they decide that the site or structure is not up to scratch. In such cases, they move on to a new site, but will work together to transfer the nest material they have been busy collecting. Their nests are designed to be durable, and they have been observed to carry out repair work on an existing nest before reusing it for a new clutch.
Willie Wagtail gathering materials to build the nest
Working together to collect materials and to construct the nest itself, male and female Willie wagtails can build their nests in between 5 and 17 days. If a second nest is being constructed from materials taken from a nest they have previously built, it will be completed a lot more quickly.
If the nest is for a subsequent brood in a season, rather than the first clutch of eggs, building may take considerably longer, between 18 and 28 days. The pair may be occupied with raising the fledglings and not have as much time to complete the task as speedily.
Willie wagtails incubate their eggs for 14 days, and hatchlings are usually ready to fledge from 11 to 17 days later. For the first few days after fledging, chicks stay close to their parents and rely on them for food, but gradually begin to venture further afield and learn to forage for insects. After two weeks, they are usually driven out by their parents to fend for themselves.
Willie wagtail feeding a chick in the nest
Willie wagtails can raise up to four broods in a season in quick succession. The second clutch may even start to hatch while fledglings are still relatively young and dependent on their parents. In such cases, the young birds will be driven away so the parents can devote their efforts on raising their most recent brood.
Willie wagtails return to the same nest for subsequent broods in the same year, and will reuse a previous nest from earlier years too. They are territorial birds and never stray far from their original patch. If an old nest is in poor condition, Willie wagtails will reuse the nest materials to construct a new one nearby.
Close up of a perched Willie Wagtail on a wooden perch
Willie wagtail eggs are cream in colour and are flecked with grey and brown markings. They measure 16 by 21 mm (0.63 by 0.83 in).
A Willie wagtail’s first clutch of eggs may be laid in July, with the final clutches being laid as late as December. Typically 3 to 4 eggs are laid, and incubated for 14 days by both males and females.
A nesting Willie Wagtail with chicks in the nest
Willie wagtails prefer to use nests they have constructed themselves, and there are no records of them laying eggs or raising their young in manmade nest boxes.
When incubating eggs, Willie wagtails will take turns to remain on the nest overnight, with the female doing the larger share of night-time brooding.
Males have a loud and distinctive night call, and you can hear this on nights when the moon is at its fullest during the breeding season, from July until February. This is made as a warning call to predators in the rough vicinity of their nest, although not at the nest site itself, so as not to draw attention to its exact location.
Outside of breeding season, Willey wagtails roost in trees at night, especially those around car parks and shopping centres, although they will generally remain fairly close to their home territory.
Close up of two Willie Wagtail chicks almost ready to fledge the nest
Willie wagtail nests can frequently be found in gardens, and the birds are not fazed by being in close proximity to humans or even their pets. Nests may be built in garden trees, lawnside shrubbery, or under the eaves of an outhouse or garden shed.
Willie wagtails regularly abandon and rebuild nests that they are not completely satisfied with. As perfectionist nest-builders, it is not uncommon for them to make three or four attempts at construction before laying commences. They will reuse nest materials from a failed or destroyed nest in their next nest attempt.
Do you have a question about this topic that we haven't answered? Submit it below, and one of our experts will answer as soon as they can.
Get the latest BirdFacts delivered straight to your inbox