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.
Being a predominantly ground dwelling bird, restricted in the main to saltmarshes, moors, heaths and agricultural land, the plumage of the meadow pipit is cryptic, which means it is patterned in such a way so as to to blend in with the surroundings of its natural habitat.
Adult meadow pipits are an earthy brown or olive brown on the upperparts with a paler buff colouration to the bird’s underparts and dark brown or black streaks across the head, shoulders, back, breast and flanks. The tertials and upperwing coverts are edged in white, forming two distinctive white wing bars and the tail is dark brown with prominent white edges across the outer feathers. The underwing is a pale buff or white and a pale ring surrounds the blackish brown of the iris of the eye. The lower cheek (malar area) contains a thin black stripe and the medium sized, slim, bill is a dark to yellowish brown in colour.
The legs are either a flesh or brownish yellow in colour with an exceptionally elongated claw on the hallux. The hallux, in ornithological terms, is the bird’s rearward facing toe where the other three toes all face forwards. This foot formation is found on all passerines and allows birds to perch on branches, fence posts and overhead cables etc. Males and females are similar in appearance and plumage.
Juvenile meadow pipits are generally paler than the adults with heavily streaked dark buff upperparts and off white underparts, devoid of the adult’s streaking to the flanks.
On hatching, chicks are covered in a pale grey down which prior to fledging changes to mirror the plumage of juvenile birds.
Juvenile Meadow Pipit
Whilst the adult female is often marginally larger than the adult male meadow pipit, they are on average between 14.5 cm to 15 cm in length (up to approximately 6 inches) with a wingspan of 24 cm, which equates to 9.5 inches.
The average weight of an adult meadow pipit is 19 grams, the equivalent of just 0.67 ounces.
There is currently some dispute between scientists as to whether the meadow pipit is monotypic or not. Whilst opinion is divided, those who consider the bird to be polytypic (containing two or more subspecies) define them as follows:
Anthus pratensis pratensis which is the nominate, is found in S E Greenland, throughout Europe and into Western Siberia. Those birds that do migrate over winter in North Africa, Iran and S W Asia.
Anthus pratensis whistleri has a more limited range, from Iceland and the Faroe Islands to Scotland, England and Ireland. Most of this subspecies is resident year round although there is some partial migration south and along nearby coastal areas.
The plumage of these two subspecies is very similar although the anthus pratensis whistleri is generally darker on the upperparts with bolder streaking across its back.
Meadow Pipit in flight
Meadow pipits belong to the largest order of birds known as Passeriformes which total over half of all the world’s birds and are made up largely of what are generally described as perching or song birds. They are from the family Motacillidae which consists of 67 species of pipits and wagtails.
The scientific name for the meadow pipit is Anthus pratensis where anthus is a Latin word meaning a small grassland bird and pratensis derives from the Latin for meadow (pratum) where pratensis means ‘of the meadow’.
Generally meadow pipits are not aggressive, in fact quite the contrary, they are social birds who often form small to medium sized flocks, particularly out of the breeding season.
Meadow Pipit perched on a wooden post
The oldest recorded meadow pipit achieved an age of over 7 years 9 months (from ringing).
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies the meadow pipit as ‘Near Threatened’, a classification which falls between ‘Least Concern’ and ‘Vulnerable’. The UK Conservation status is Amber although in the recent past it has been at Red. This follows a decline in the meadow pipit breeding population from 1969 onwards and the winter population decline from the early 1980’s.
However, within its range, the meadow pipit is considered common or very common and it is estimated that globally the total adult population of the bird could be up to 40 million individuals.
Close up portrait of a Meadow Pipit
Meadow pipits are mainly insectivores with the addition of spiders, moths, larvae and worms. They will also occasionally eat seeds and are predominantly ground feeders, often seen foraging in short grass or moorland of less than 4 inches in height. Whilst they are known to grab flying insects this is usually from the ground and is much less common whilst the bird is in flight.
Meadow Pipit feeding on a worm
Meadow pipits are monogamous meaning that they pair for life and as a breeding pair they tend to restrict themselves to a specific area, which they consider their own, and will protect from other pipits. They reach breeding age after one year.
Meadow pipits spend a lot of their time on the ground both foraging and nesting. The adult female alone will construct a small cup shaped nest from grasses, lined with animal hair, down and fine vegetation which is located upon the ground, hidden amongst vegetation within their normal area of habitation.
Interestingly the Cuckoo favours the meadow pipit’s nest in which to lay its own eggs. The cuckoo chick hatches first and pushes the pipit eggs out of the nest fooling the meadow pipit into raising the cuckoo chick as its own, to the detriment of the pipit's own attempts to produce a family.
Meadow Pipit nest with five eggs inside
Meadow pipits normally produce two broods a season (occasionally 3) between the months of March to August, dependent upon geographical location. Each clutch numbers between 2 - 7 eggs and is incubated by the female for an average of thirteen days. Fledging occurs up to two weeks after hatching, prior to which the chicks are fed by both parents, a duty that continues for a further 14 days after the young have fledged.
Meadow pipit eggs are a glossy white base colour spotted with dark brown and measure 20 mm x 14 mm (approximately ¾ inch x ½ inch). They weigh an average of 2.1 grams which equates to 0.07 of an ounce.
When singing from the ground the song consists of simple and repetitive ‘zi’ or ‘tsip’ sounds.
When protecting its territory the meadow pipit has a call, issued in flight, similar to a ‘tsip’, ‘tlip’ or ‘zu’, sung in a number of distinct phrases starting softly and increasing in volume and speed, culminating in a fanfare of mixed sounds ‘tee - swia - swia’.
During the breeding season the adult male can be seen singing in flight as it rises almost vertically to a height of approximately 25 metres and then descends to the ground with its wings half open and tail raised in what has become known as a ‘parachuting’ display to attract its mate.
Meadow Pipit calling
Only rarely will meadow pipits venture into woodland, preferring by far the open spaces of pasture, heath, moorland, tundra, saltmarsh, agricultural land, coastal meadows and even park land.
Within their range meadow pipits are considered to be very common and within the United Kingdom, they are the most common songbird of upland areas, particularly within the northern and western regions of the Kingdom. During the winter many UK based meadow pipits will move south into central and southern England.
Meadow Pipit on the ground
Not all meadow pipits migrate with many remaining within their chosen territory year round, or undertaking a partial migration south. However, those who breed in northern Europe and Russia migrate annually, between September and November, to southern and central Europe, North Africa, Southwest Asia and the Middle East.
Meadow Pipit flying
Within Europe in particular and to a lesser extent Western Siberia, the meadow pipit is a common sight. Europe accounts for up to 94% of the global range of the meadow pipit and although there has been a gradual decline in European numbers since the 1970s, due in the main, it is believed, to agricultural intensification, numbers are still fairly high.
Within the United Kingdom, it is still the most common songbird found in upland areas.
Family:Pipits and wagtails
14.5cm to 22cm
25cm to 15cm
Western Yellow Wagtail
Known for its vibrant yellow underparts and lively tail-wagging habit, the Yellow Wagtail is a charming small bird that can be found in open country across Europe and Asia. With its distinctive 'tsweep' call and acrobatic aerial displays, this long-distance migrant is a delightful sight, particularly in the springtime when it returns to its breeding grounds after wintering in 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.
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.