Yellow Wagtail

Motacilla flava

This colourful, regular, ground nesting summer visitor breeds throughout Europe, many overwintering across the vast plains of Africa.

Yellow Wagtail

Yellow Wagtail

What does a Yellow Wagtail look like?

The adult male is a striking bird with bright yellow underparts and an olive green back. The wings are dark almost black with two white bars on top and the tail black with white sides. It has a bright yellow stripe across the top of its eye and a green crown with long slender black legs and a dark grey black bill. The yellow wagtail has the shortest tail of the three species of wagtails found in the UK, the others being the grey wagtail and the pied wagtail. The adult female is similar to the male although much paler in colour. Juveniles are mainly buff and light olive green coloured with black and white wings.

<p><strong>Yellow Wagtail</strong></p>

Yellow Wagtail

<p><strong>Female Yellow Wagtail</strong></p>

Female Yellow Wagtail

What does a Yellow Wagtail sound like?

Yellow wagtails have a loud distinctive call often repeated with a sound similar to 'tsweep' or 'tsli'.

David Pennington, XC587683. Accessible at

What does a Yellow Wagtail eat?

Being a forager and ground feeder, the bird prefers wet meadows and cattle pastures where it feeds off beetles, flies and other insects. It is often seen in the company of horses and other livestock who disturb the insects upon which the yellow wagtail feeds.

Did you know?

In Europe, there are eight subspecies of yellow wagtails. The main difference is the colour on the male's heads. In Germany and France, you may come across the blue-headed wagtail. Finland has the ashy-headed wagtail and Italy has the grey-headed wagtail.

Where can I see Yellow Wagtails?

Yellow Wagtails arrive in the UK from April returning to Africa in late September. Whilst they can be found in almost any region of the UK they tend to breed and limit themselves to central and eastern England, particularly East Anglia and Lincolnshire. They are often seen running and skipping around wet pastures and marsh areas as well as arable farmland.

Yellow Wagtail

Signs and spotting tips

Those seeking out yellow wagtails should confine themselves to the bird’s favoured habitats and bear in mind they can easily be confused with other wagtails, particularly the grey wagtail who has a grey back and white throat. They are easy to spot on the ground particularly as they frequently ‘wag’ their tails up and down as they move.

How does a Yellow Wagtail breed?

Yellow wagtails nest on the ground either in feather and grass lined scrapes or on grass or tussock mounds. Between May and July they may rear up to two broods annually consisting of 5 -6 buff grey eggs with light brown markings.

Juvenile Yellow Wagtail

Juvenile Yellow Wagtail

How long do Yellow Wagtails live for?

Yellow wagtails can live for up to five years although the average is closer to three.

Do Yellow Wagtails migrate?

These birds are summer visitors to the UK and usually spend time from March all the way through to September here. When the weather starts to get a bit colder in the winter, they migrate to western Africa and typically congregate in communal roosts.

Threats and conservation

Yellow Wagtails are listed as a Red species which means there's a concern for their conservation. This is down to the large declining breeding numbers. Since the 1970s, it's believed that the number has fallen by up to 80%, which could be linked to changes in farming practice.

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Quick Facts


Scientific name:

Motacilla flava


Pipits and wagtails

Conservation status:






23cm to 27cm


16g to 22g

Learn more about the Yellow Wagtail

Similar birds to a Yellow Wagtail

Other birds in the Pipits and wagtails family

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