A familiar sight in town centre carparks and open spaces, pied wagtails are widespread across the UK and are particularly at home near to water. During winter, they are sociable birds, roosting together, but become highly territorial in the breeding season. Join us as we take a look at the nesting habits of pied wagtails, and learn more about how they raise their young.
Pied wagtails have a flexible approach to nest sites, establishing nests in settings as diverse as tangles of ivy, under gutters, in between stones, in oil drums, and under bridges. Pied wagtails commonly nest close to other animals, in particular beavers and even golden eagles.
A subspecies of the white wagtail, pied wagtails (Motacilla alba yarrellii) are common across the British Isles, and breed in all but the most inhabitable regions of the Scottish Highlands. Breeding takes place between April and early August, with between four and six eggs laid in a typical clutch.
To discover more about where, when and how these black and white birds with their distinctive tail-bobbing walk build their nests, please read on.
|Key Pied Wagtail Nesting Facts|
|Nesting season||March to July|
|Nesting material||Grasses, plant stems, plant material, feathers, hair, wool|
|Nest location||Sheltered spots, highly variable in location|
|Number of broods||Two broods|
|Clutch size||4 - 6 eggs|
|Egg colour||Pale grey, with darker grey spotting|
|Egg size||20 x 15 mm|
|Egg weight||2.3 g|
|Incubation period||12 - 14 days, by the female|
|Fledgling period||13 - 16 days after hatching|
|Reuse nests||Usually not, but same territories will be used|
|Use nest boxes||Rarely|
The nest of a White Wagtail (Pied Wagtail)
Pied wagtails are adaptable nesters and will seek a safe, sheltered spot to lay their eggs. Such shelter can be found in crevices and cracks in walls, banks or ditches, but the species has a creative approach to nesting, and examples of nesting spots include machinery, oil drums, bridges, rooftops, gutters, and even inside a walrus skull.
Pied wagtails will commonly return to the same nesting territories in subsequent years. When a previous nest site has been unsuccessful or has been disturbed, it will not be reused again.
Within the same breeding season, reuse of an original nest has been occasionally recorded, with a new lining added before the second clutch of eggs is laid.
Pied wagtails are adaptable nesters and if suitable sites exist, they will readily build their nest in a back garden. Such sites include hanging creepers and vines on garden sheds, cracks between stones in walls and rockeries, and even drainpipes. Gardens with large lawns or access to ponds are especially attractive to pied wagtails.
Wagtails nest in a variety of places
Evidence shows that pied wagtails do occasionally use nest boxes, and prefer the open-fronted style boxes. These are lined with nesting materials, and a cup-shaped nest structure is formed on the base.
Pied wagtails tend not to build nests in trees in the same way that many other bird species do, although occasionally, they choose to use a natural hollow in a tree trunk.
Ivy-clad tree trunks may offer appropriate shelter, and other vegetation popular with nesting pied wagtails include creepers, vines and other tangled roots or thick shrubby bushes.
As with their diverse catalogue of nesting sites, pied wagtails seem to be equally comfortable raising their young both close to the ground and at higher altitude sites.
Cliffside nests around 30 m (100 ft) off the ground may be used in coastal areas, while ground level nests may be used in rural areas with sparse vegetation. Nests are commonly made in woodpiles, ditches and other low-level spots.
Pied Wagtail with insects in its beak, ready to feed the young chicks in the nest below
Pied wagtails make their nests inside cracks or crevices, or tucked away inside a tangle of ivy, creepers or roots. The nest itself is woven together from grasses, plant stems and other plant material to form a tidy cup shape. This is then lined with feathers, hair or wool.
Pied wagtail nests are neat and compact cups, tightly woven from twigs and grasses, and sometimes held in shape by wet mud. The size of the nest varies according to space available at the nest site, with constructions adjusted to fit the gap or hole selected.
Young Pied Wagtail chicks inside of the nest, waiting to be fed
The earliest signs of nesting can be seen from late February onwards, as males become incredibly territorial in their behaviour, and are even observed to attack their own reflection in car wing mirrors or windows as they attempt to see off competitors to their planned breeding patch.
Incubation lasts for between 12 and 14 days, after which young pied wagtail hatchlings are fed in the nest by both parents for another 13 to 16 days. After fledging, parental support with feeding continues for another 14 to 18 days by both parents.
However, if a second brood is attempted, females will leave the fledgling care duties to the male from around 7 days after they leave the nest to concentrate on her subsequent clutch.
Pied wagtails usually lay their eggs from late April onwards. Breeding is usually complete earlier in the summer, although eggs may be laid as late as July when a second brood is attempted.
Pied wagtails do not use nests in the winter, preferring instead to roost communally in roadside trees or on town centre rooftops, particularly in large retail complexes or around car parks. Roosts can be formed of as many as several hundred birds, huddled closely together for warmth.
Close up of a Pied Wagtail on the ground
Female pied wagtails weave together cup-shaped nests using twigs, grasses and plant roots and stems. The building process takes around a week, and early attempts may be abandoned in favour of starting again from scratch.
Grass, plant stems, and other plant parts are pulled together to form a neat, tightly woven cup. This is then lined with softer materials, including feathers, wool and hair.
Pied wagtail nests are constructed entirely by the female bird, with no assistance from the male in either collecting materials or crafting the nest itself.
Pied Wagtail collecting nesting material for nest construction
Pied wagtails lay pale grey, smooth, glossy eggs that are marked with darker grey spots. Eggs measure approximately 20 mm by 15 mm (0.8 in by 0.6 in).
Most pied wagtail clutches consist of between three and eight eggs, with four to six being the most common number.
Male pied wagtails do share incubation duties with females, although the largest portion of egg-brooding is done by females. Young pied wagtails are fed in the nest by both males and females.
Close up of six unhatched Pied Wagtail eggs inside the nest
Baby pied wagtails are ready to fledge around 13 to 16 days after hatching.
It’s common for pied wagtails in the UK to only have one or two broods each season. Populations living further south may attempt a second brood, but the further north you go, raising a single brood is most common.
Close up of a juvenile Pied Wagtail
Nests can be abandoned by breeding pied wagtails at any stage, from early construction to incubation if a significant threat to the survival of the brood is encountered.
Such reasons for abandoning a nest might include discovery of the nest by a cuckoo, or disturbance by humans or pets.
Occasionally, pied wagtails will resort to creating a ground-level nest, but it’s far more common for them to use a nest that offers more protection from the elements and from predators.
Ground-level nests are found mainly in areas of rough and open country, where no other more suitable nesting sites are available.
Outside the breeding season, pied wagtails form nighttime roosts together, with groups of several hundred birds gathering together overnight in roadside trees or bushes, or on rooftops around car parks and shopping centres.
Pied wagtails are particularly drawn to large, open gardens, close to water. As ground feeders, they will welcome foraging opportunities, looking for insects or even crumbs on the ground.
Pied wagtails tend to be most common visitors to larger gardens or those with ponds. If nesting opportunities are present, there is every chance they may explore it and decide to set up home in a suitable garden.
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