Pied Wagtail

Motacilla alba

Black and white bird distinguished by its tail bobbing antics as it hops along. They are also known as the white wagtail.

Pied Wagtail

Pied Wagtail

Quick Facts


Scientific name:

Motacilla alba

Other names:

White Wagtail


Pipits and wagtails

Conservation status:






25cm to 30cm


17g to 25g

What does a Pied Wagtail look like?

The pied wagtail is the British and Irish race of the white wagtail. It is easily identified by its black and white markings and long, wagging tail. The general appearance is of a glossy black nape, black throat and breast easing into white below, and large white cheek patches.

In summer, the adult male has black on its crown, nape, chin and upper breast. The back, wings and tail are black except for white fringes and tips to wings and white outer tail feathers.

The adult female in summer is similar to the male but is dark sooty grey with a black rump and greyer back, flanks are dark olive grey. Winter and immature plumages are somewhat less dark above. The black throat is absent in non-breeding adults.

Pied wagtails have short, rounded wings for agility. They spend a lot of time feeding on the ground so they have strong legs and toes for running. Their long tail helps with balance.

Pied Wagtail

What does a Pied Wagtail sound like?

The pied wagtail’s song is a hurried warbling twitter, its main contact call is a loud “chissik”. The male uses a series of contact calls to attract the female.

Pied Wagtail call

Simon Elliott, XC596086. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/596086.

What does a Pied Wagtail eat?

Pied wagtails eat small invertebrates. In winter, the birds may also eat seeds and household scraps. They prefer bare areas of the ground over which to hunt and chase their prey.

Pied Wagtail

Where can I see Pied Wagtails?

Pied wagtails prefer open areas, except for roosting, when reed beds are often used.

The birds roost communally, and some roosts have been known to contain up to 5,000 individuals. They will make use of various spaces for this practice, including greenhouses and other manmade structures.

The easy availability of insects around human habitations has enabled this species to live close to people, and they can often be seen in farmyards and villages. They also like to be close to the water.

In Britain, pied wagtails can be seen all year round.

Did you know?

The pied wagtail is also known by various other names, including polly washdish and willy wagtail.

Pied Wagtail

Signs and Spotting tips

The pied wagtail generally draws attention to itself with striking plumage, active habits, bounding flight and loud calls. They are attracted to bare areas such as golf courses, grass lawns, roofs and roads.

They are fast-running birds that can easily see and catch insects. When hunting, the pied wagtail often rushes after prey only to pull up suddenly, tail bobbing excitedly. It has a deeply undulating flight.

How does a Pied Wagtail breed?

The pied wagtail nests in stone walls, beneath roof tiles, ventilation shafts, banks, among ivy, under stones, generally anywhere they feel comfortable. The nest is a cup of twigs and grass lined with moss and hair.

Here, the female will lay 5-6 smooth, glossy bluish-white, finely speckled grey-brown eggs. The incubation period lasts for 12-14 days, and the fledgling period is 14-15 days. Breeding pairs can raise 2 broods a year.

For more information on Pied Wagtail nesting, check out this guide.

Pied wagtail nest and eggs

Pied Wagtail nest with eggs

Juvenile pied wagtail

Juvenile Pied Wagtail

How long do Pied Wagtails live for?

Pied wagtails typically live for 2 years.

Do Pied Wagtails migrate?

Pied wagtails are resident in Britain, though they’re not a massive fan of cold weather and will retreat from Scotland during the winter. The white wagtail, their continental cousins are passage migrants in the UK.

Threats and conservation

The pied wagtail’s UK conservation status is Green. The species’ UK breeding population is around 470,000 pairs. The birds are very adaptable and the number of pied wagtails is increasing in Britain.

What is the difference between a pied wagtail and a white wagtail?

Pied Wagtails (Motacilla alba yarrellii) and continental white wagtails (Motacilla alba alba) are both subspecies of the White Wagtail (Motacilla alba).

Continental white wagtails are generally lighter on their backs compared to the pied wagtail.

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Other birds in the Pipits and wagtails family

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