Grey Wagtail

Motacilla cinerea

Widespread in the United Kingdom, the Grey Wagtail is a colourful and cheerful bird with a continually bobbing tail. These year-round residents nest along fast-flowing streams but descend to lowland habitats each winter.

Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail

Female Grey Wagtail

Female Grey Wagtail

Juvenile Grey Wagtail

Juvenile Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail perching on a branch

Grey Wagtail perching on a branch

Appearance & Identification

What do Grey Wagtails look like?

The Grey Wagtail is a dainty bird with a long tail and delicate pinkish legs. They are uniform grey from the crown to the lower back but have a yellow rump and underparts. Their tail is black with white outer edges, and their wings are black above, with a central white stripe visible in flight.

Most female Grey Wagtails have a white throat in the breeding season while breeding males develop a bold black chin. Non-breeding females have less yellow plumage on their undersides than males, with most colour under the tail area.

Juvenile birds resemble adult females but have an olive tinge to their upperparts and duller markings.

Grey Wagtails are most easily confused with the Yellow Wagtail, a migratory species that visit the UK each spring and summer. That species has black (not pinkish) legs and a shorter tail. Breeding male Yellow Wagtails have completely yellow underparts and greenish upperparts, while females and juveniles have dull yellow and buff plumages, respectively.

Grey Wagtail standing on the riverside

Grey Wagtail standing on the riverside

How big are Grey Wagtails?

Grey Wagtails are short-legged, elongated birds that are slimmer and longer-tailed than the more common Pied Wagtail.


Adults measure 17 to 20 centimetres in length, much of which is made up by their long, constantly wagging tails.


Adults weigh 14 to 22 grams, with males being slightly heavier.


Typical wingspans measure 25 to 27 centimetres, and males have slightly longer wings on average.

Grey Wagtail perching on a thorny branch

Grey Wagtail perching on a thorny branch

Calls & Sounds

What sound does a Grey Wagtail make?

Grey Wagtails make rapid ‘tchick’ or ‘tchi-tchi’ calls, similar to the Pied Wagtail. Males produce a high-pitched song that includes trilling, ‘tzi-tzi-tzi’, or slower ‘tzee-tzee-tzee’ phrases during their display flight.

Grey Wagtail calling out

Grey Wagtail calling out


What do Grey Wagtails eat?

Grey Wagtails hunt for insects and small aquatic invertebrates. Flies and midges dominate their diet, although they eat a variety of organisms, including snails, shrimp, beetles, dragonflies, and spiders. They find most of their food on the ground but may catch prey in shallow water or flight.

What do Grey Wagtail chicks eat?

Grey Wagtail chicks eat small invertebrates delivered by both parents.

Do Grey Wagtails use bird feeders?

Grey Wagtails rarely visit bird feeders, although they may eat mealworms from the ground or a platform feeder.

Grey Wagtail with its beak full of caught insects

Grey Wagtail with its beak full of caught insects

Habitat & Distribution

What is the habitat of a Grey Wagtail?

Grey Wagtails live along fast-flowing, rocky streams and rivers in hilly, forested areas in the breeding season. They are not strictly associated with flowing water in the winter when they feed in lowland habitats like farmland, gardens, and sewage works.

What is the range of a Grey Wagtail?

Grey Wagtails have a wide distribution in Europe, Asia, and Africa. They occur through most of southern, central, and western Europe but are largely absent from the east and north.

Migratory populations breed across Russia, Mongolia, and China, and they are present throughout the year in Japan. They overwinter in southeast Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, parts of the Middle East, and East Africa. Resident populations also occur in Madeira, the Canary Islands, and the Azores.

Where do Grey Wagtails live?

Grey Wagtails spend most of their time on the ground, walking about and wagging their tails as they search for food. They often perch on rocks in streams, overhanging branches, and even rooftops.

How rare are Grey Wagtails?

Grey Wagtails can be common in suitable habitats like streams. However, they are territorial in the breeding season, so you’re unlikely to see more than one pair or family group on a stretch of riverfront. They change habitats in the non-breeding season, and this is when birdwatchers are most likely to spot them in farmland or even towns and villages.

Where can you see Grey Wagtails in the UK?

Grey Wagtails are widespread in the United Kingdom, occurring throughout most of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Look out for them along rivers and streams in upland areas in the summer and a variety of lowland habitats (including suburban areas) in the winter.

Grey Wagtail in natural habitat

Grey Wagtail in natural habitat

Lifespan & Predation

How long do Grey Wagtails live?

Grey Wagtails have a maximum recorded lifespan of seven years.

What are the predators of Grey Wagtails?

Grey Wagtails could fall prey to various small carnivores, including Domestic Cats, Sparrowhawks, and Tawny Owls.

Are Grey Wagtails protected?

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 protects Grey Wagtails in the United Kingdom.

Are Grey Wagtails endangered?

Grey Wagtails are on the UK’s amber list due to earlier declines, although their population has stabilised and they have been promoted from the red list. Globally, they are ranked as a ‘Least Concern’ species on the IUCN Red List with a stable population trend.

Why is the Grey Wagtail endangered?

While not endangered, Grey Wagtails are vulnerable to harsh winters, which may reduce their population substantially in some years. Fortunately, they are relatively resilient to stream pollution, perhaps because they catch much of their prey outside of the water.

Grey Wagtail foraging in farmland

Grey Wagtail foraging in farmland

Nesting & Breeding

Where do Grey Wagtails nest?

Grey Wagtails usually nest along streams and rivers, building their nests in the riverbank, on a small rock ledge, among tree roots, or in suitable artificial sites like bridges and rock walls. Their nest is a cup of plant material and animal hair.

When do Grey Wagtails nest?

Grey Wagtails nest from late March to August, usually producing two broods and sometimes even a third. Their eggs hatch after about 12 days, and the chicks leave the nest 12 to 15 days later. The young birds will be fed for another two or three weeks before gaining independence.

What do Grey Wagtail eggs look like?

Grey Wagtails typically lay five (3 - 7) eggs, each measuring 19 millimetres long and 14 millimetres wide. Their eggs are cream-coloured with fine greyish spots.

Do Grey Wagtails mate for life?

Grey Wagtails are monogamous when breeding and form strong pair bonds. Whether they mate for life is uncertain, although the same nest sites may be used year after year, perhaps by the same birds.

Nest of a Grey Wagtail with two chicks

Nest of a Grey Wagtail with two chicks


Are Grey Wagtails aggressive?

Grey Wagtails are highly territorial in the breeding season when pairs defend their own stretch along a stream or river. Their territories may extend for hundreds of metres.

Where do Grey Wagtails sleep at night?

Grey Wagtails roost in vegetation like trees and reedbeds. They may gather at communal roosts in the winter, sometimes in mixed flocks with Pied Wagtails.

Grey Wagtail perching on top of a fallen tree trunk

Grey Wagtail perching on top of a fallen tree trunk


Do Grey Wagtails migrate?

Grey Wagtails are not strictly migratory, although some birds do leave the country to overwinter in southern Europe. Many birds that summer at higher elevations will make shorter altitudinal migrations to warmer lowland areas in the winter, and some also visit from Continental Europe.

Are Grey Wagtails native to the UK?

Grey Wagtails are a native species in the United Kingdom, with historical records dating back many centuries.

Grey Wagtail in natural habitat

Grey Wagtail in natural habitat


How do I attract Grey Wagtails to my garden?

Grey Wagtails are difficult to attract, especially in the summer when they nest along upland streams. They often visit gardens in winter but show little interest in birdfeeders. Installing a water feature with a waterfall or cascade probably offers the best chance of attracting these birds, and they may well feed on mealworms scattered on the ground or a low-platform feeder.

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Quick Facts


Scientific name:

Motacilla cinerea


Pipits and wagtails

Conservation status:




17cm to 20cm


25cm to 27cm


14g to 22g

Learn more about the Grey Wagtail

Similar birds to a Grey Wagtail

Other birds in the Pipits and wagtails family

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