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.
Female Grey Wagtail
Juvenile Grey Wagtail
Grey Wagtail perching on a branch
Family:Pipits and wagtails
17cm to 20cm
25cm to 27cm
14g to 22g
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 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 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 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.
Grey Wagtail chicks eat small invertebrates delivered by both parents.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Wagtails have a maximum recorded lifespan of seven years.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 protects Grey Wagtails in the United Kingdom.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
Grey Wagtails are a native species in the United Kingdom, with historical records dating back many centuries.
Grey Wagtail in natural habitat
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.
This colourful, regular, ground nesting summer visitor breeds throughout Europe, many overwintering across the vast plains of Africa.
Although they are not native to the British Isles, around 200 water pipits (Anthus spinoletta) spend winter in the UK each year. These marsh-loving birds arrive from October onwards from their breeding grounds in mountainous land in central and southern Europe, settling for up to six months on British wetlands.
Known for their swirling courtship flight and trilled song, Tree Pipits are summer visitors to parts of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, arriving from wintering grounds in Africa each spring, and establishing breeding territories on the edges of woodlands, heaths and moorlands.
Rock pipits are year-round residents at sites around much of the UKs coastline, and can be seen foraging on rocky shores for snails and crustaceans. Its mainly a ground-dwelling bird, with a distinctive bobbing run, as it forages for snails on stony seashores.
The Pied Wagtail is a small songbird with a befitting name. These busy birds are just as at home in our towns and cities as they are amongst wading birds along the shorelines of ponds and wetlands.
The meadow pipit is a small, long tailed passerine of the genus Anthus, which is made up of 42 separate species of pipit. Pipits and Wagtails share the same family with species found worldwide bar Antarctica. The meadow pipit is a bird favouring open countryside regions and is found throughout Europe and areas of southwestern Asia.
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