Motacilla alba yarrellii
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.
Pied Wagtail perched on a wall
Pied Wagtail calling, Scotland, UK
Pied Wagtails are a subspecies of the White Wagtail
Pied Wagtail walking on the grass
Motacilla alba yarrellii
Family:Pipits and wagtails
17cm to 18cm
25cm to 30cm
17g to 25g
The Pied Wagtail is one of three wagtail species in the UK. Although similar in shape and size, this species is easily identified by its monochrome plumage.
The Pied Wagtail is a distinctive species with a white face, a black crown and back, and a black throat and breast. Their underparts are whitish, and their tail is black with white edges. Like other wagtails, they have a long tail, a thin, straight bill, and slender legs.
Female Pied Wagtails are very similar to males but slightly greyer. They are also lighter on average, although this is difficult to notice in the field.
Juveniles are a paler grey shade, often with some yellowish plumage on the face and bill.
The continental subspecies of the White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba) pass through the UK each year on migration. These birds are very similar to the Pied Wagtail but have paler plumage with grey (not black) backs and flanks.
Close up of a perched Pied Wagtail
Pied Wagtails are small birds, about the same size as the robin but with a longer tail.
Pied Wagtails have a total body length of 16.5 - 18 centimetres. Their long, ever-wagging tail makes up much of their length.
Pied Wagtails weigh 17 - 25 grams. Females are generally lighter, although there is some overlap.
Their wingspan is typically 25 to 35 centimetres.
Pied Wagtails are small birds, similar to the size of a Robin
The Pied Wagtails call is a familiar sound in various habitats across the UK.
The Pied Wagtail’s most familiar call is a sharp ‘chi-sik’ They also have a rapid twittering and warbling song uttered in flight or from a perch.
Pied Wagtail call
Simon Elliott, XC596086. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/596086.
Pied Wagtails are primarily insect eaters and continue to hunt for live prey even in the winter. However, they will take berries and scraps when food is scarce.
These birds pick most of their food off the ground or water's edge, but they are also adept at catching flying insects out of the air.
Pied Wagtails feed predominantly on the following invertebrates:
Both Parents feed Pied Wagtail chicks a diet of insects and other small invertebrates. The young birds leave the nest after about two weeks but will be fed for a further two weeks until they reach independence.
Pied Wagtail with a beak full of insects
The Pied Wagtail of the UK is one of about ten subspecies distributed across Asia and as far as Western Alaska.
Pied Wagtails are common along the margins of rivers, lakes, and seashores. They are adaptable birds, however, and are quite at home in farmlands, gardens, and even city centres.
Pied Wagtails are widespread in the United Kingdom, occurring throughout England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland in the summer. However, they become scarce or absent from high-lying areas in Scotland in the winter.
Pied Wagtails spend most of their time on the ground, although it’s not unusual to see them perched on posts, branches, and walls. They favour open habitats like lawns and sandy or rocky areas.
Close up of a Pied Wagtail in its natural habitat
The pied wagtail is also known by various other names, including polly washdish and willy wagtail.
Pied Wagtails are not rare in the United Kingdom. The estimated population of breeding birds is just over a million individuals.
Pied Wagtails are commensal birds that are quite at home around our villages, towns, and even cities. Birdwatchers can usually see these birds very close to home, although an outing to any open habitat may be rewarded, particularly near water.
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.
Pied Wagtail in flight
Pied Wagtails are relatively short-lived birds, although they remain a common species in the United Kingdom and have increased significantly in the last fifty years or so.
Nearly half of all Pied Wagtails perish in their first year. However, these birds can live for ten years or more in some cases.
Pied Wagtails are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981.
Pied Wagtails are not endangered. They have a green conservation status in the United Kingdom and are assessed as a ‘Least Concern’ species on the IUCN Red List.
Pied Wagtail perched during the winter snow
Pied Wagtails are common breeding birds that build their nests in some rather surprising places. Their nest is built by both partners over about nine days and consists of a twig platform lined with softer materials like hair.
Pied Wagtails look for sheltered areas to nest, such as holes and crevices. These can be natural structures like hollow logs and rock crevices or artificial sites like abandoned buildings and old machinery. Unusual nest sites include old swallow nests and even artillery barrels!
Check out our comprehensive guide on Pied Wagtail nesting behaviour.
Pied Wagtail eggs are pale blueish-white and covered in light brown speckles. Each egg measures approximately 20 millimetres long and 15 millimetres wide.
Pied Wagtails are monogamous in the breeding season, although they are not known to mate for life.
Pied Wagtail nest with eggs
Juvenile Pied Wagtail
One of the most conspicuous and intriguing behaviours of the Pied Wagtail is its constant tail-wagging. This behaviour is not fully understood, but it could be useful for flushing their insect prey or to signal their vitality and alertness to potential predators.
Pied Wagtails are highly aggressive and territorial in the breeding and non-breeding seasons, using display and physical fights to ward off competitors. They may chase other birds from bird feeders and sometimes even attack their own reflection in windows and mirrors.
Pied Wagtails sleep in flocks during the non-breeding season. They prefer the safety and shelter of reedbeds, although they will also roost in trees. Females will sleep on the nest in the breeding season.
Pied Wagtail foraging for food on a beach, Cornwall, UK
Pied Wagtails find food throughout the year in the United Kingdom, although some choose to head south, and others merely pass through. Read on to learn more about Pied Wagtail migration in the UK.
Pied Wagtails generally do not migrate in the UK, although those that breed in high-lying parts of Scotland will undertake short southward migrations for the summer. However, some Pied Wagtails will leave the UK, occasionally migrating as far as North Africa.
The White Wagtail (M. a. alba) is a similar subspecies that passes through the UK each spring and autumn. Most of these birds breed in Iceland and overwinter in Southern Europe.
Pied Wagtails are native to the United Kingdom.
Pied Wagtail from behind, with wing and tail detail
All Pied Wagtails are White Wagtails, although the opposite is not true. While this may sound like a riddle, the simple answer is that Pied Wagtails are merely a ‘type’ of White Wagtail that is native to the UK.
Read on for a slightly more technical explanation.
The White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) has been split into at least ten different subspecies, each separated by physical differences and range differences.
The local Pied Wagtail is one of the White Wagtail subspecies and is characterised by darker plumage and its range on the British Isles.
Pied Wagtails favour open habitats near water, making gardens with larger lawns and ponds or other water features especially attractive. These birds will also feed on breadcrumbs, cheese and mealworms sprinkled on the ground.
The Pied Wagtail features in Roman Mythology as a symbol of good fortune. Whether you are superstitious or not, we can all agree that these are lovely birds to have around!
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 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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