Pied Wagtail

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

Pied Wagtail

Pied Wagtail perched on a wall

Pied Wagtail perched on a wall

Pied Wagtail calling, Scotland, UK

Pied Wagtail calling, Scotland, UK

Pied Wagtails are a subspecies of the White Wagtail

Pied Wagtails are a subspecies of the White Wagtail

Pied Wagtail walking on the grass

Pied Wagtail walking on the grass

Appearance & Identification

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.

What do Pied Wagtails look like?

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

Close up of a perched Pied Wagtail

How big are Pied Wagtails?

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

Pied Wagtails are small birds, similar to the size of a Robin

Calls & Sounds

The Pied Wagtails call is a familiar sound in various habitats across the UK.

What sound does a Pied Wagtail make?

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.


What do Pied Wagtails eat?

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:

  • Flies
  • Beetles
  • Dragonflies
  • Snails
  • Worms
  • Small fish

What do baby Pied Wagtails eat?

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

Pied Wagtail with a beak full of insects

Habitat & Distribution

The Pied Wagtail of the UK is one of about ten subspecies distributed across Asia and as far as Western Alaska.

What is the habitat of a Pied Wagtail?

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.

What is the range of a Pied Wagtail?

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.

Where do Pied Wagtails live?

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

Close up of a Pied Wagtail in its natural habitat

Did you know?

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

How rare are Pied Wagtails?

Pied Wagtails are not rare in the United Kingdom. The estimated population of breeding birds is just over a million individuals.

Where can you see Pied Wagtails in the UK?

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.

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.

Pied Wagtail in flight

Pied Wagtail in flight

Lifespan & Predation

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.

How long do Pied Wagtails live?

Nearly half of all Pied Wagtails perish in their first year. However, these birds can live for ten years or more in some cases.

What are the predators of Pied Wagtails?

Sparrowhawks and domestic cats are major predators of the Pied Wagtail. Their young are vulnerable to nest predators like the Magpie and nest parasites like the Cuckoo.

Are Pied Wagtails protected?

Pied Wagtails are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981.

Are Pied Wagtails endangered?

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 Wagtail perched during the winter snow

Nesting & Breeding

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.

Where do Pied Wagtails nest?

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.

What do Pied Wagtail eggs look like?

Pied Wagtail eggs are pale blueish-white and covered in light brown speckles. Each egg measures approximately 20 millimetres long and 15 millimetres wide.

Do Pied Wagtails mate for life?

Pied Wagtails are monogamous in the breeding season, although they are not known to mate for life.

<p><strong>Pied Wagtail nest with eggs</strong></p>

Pied Wagtail nest with eggs

<p><strong>Juvenile Pied Wagtail</strong></p>

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.

Are Pied Wagtails aggressive?

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.

Where do Pied Wagtails sleep at night?

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 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.

Do Pied Wagtails migrate?

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.

Are Pied Wagtails native to the UK?

Pied Wagtails are native to the United Kingdom.

Pied Wagtail from behind, with wing and tail detail

Pied Wagtail from behind, with wing and tail detail


What is the difference between a Pied Wagtail and a White Wagtail?

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.

How to attract Pied Wagtails

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.

Are Pied Wagtails good luck?

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!

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Quick Facts


Scientific name:

Motacilla alba yarrellii

Other names:

White Wagtail


Pipits and wagtails

Conservation status:




17cm to 18cm


25cm to 30cm


17g to 25g

Learn more about the Pied Wagtail

Other birds in the Pipits and wagtails family

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