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Pied Wagtail-{ Birds of Europe}

Updated on August 2, 2015


The first in a series about the birds of Europe. The Pied wagtail is a fascinating little bird that is familiar in towns as well as in the wider countryside. Here I review the birds historic facts along with the perception of the bird through the eyes of past ornithologists

The pied Wagtail Motacilla alba belongs to the Passeriformes order of birds {perching birds}, and the family Motacillidae. Here in the UK the subspecies Motacilla alba yarrellii a darker coloured species tends to the dominant bird. While the White wagtail Motacilla alba alba dominates over much of Europe.

The Latin Genus name of Motacilla once meant 'Little mover', however confusion within the Medieval writers giving rise to the new Latin name 'cilla' meaning tail. Others believe the name Motacilla derives from the Greek mutex a bird described by Hesyobius.

The specific name alba is from Latin and means white. {yarrellii is named after Yarrel an English Zoologist 1784-1856}.

Motacilla alba yarrellii

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3.0 unported license. | Source

Description of the Pied Wagtail

The adult male Pied Wagtail in full breeding plumage has the forehead extending along the sides of the head and neck pure white, the rest of the upper parts are black, except the tips median wing coverts, the margins of the greater wing coverts and inner most secondaries and the greater portion of the two outside tail feathers on each side are pure white, and the wings which are dark brown.

The chin throat and upper breast are black, which joins the black of the shoulder, isolating the white on the sides of the neck from the white of the rest of the underparts. The bill is black, legs feet and claws black. Irides dark brown.

The female in summer plumage closely resembles the male but the under parts are much greyer and mottled only with black. After the autumn moult the black on the throat and breast is reduced to a crescentic band across the latter, and the white on the throat is only separated from the white of the under parts by the grey on the back, which extends to the sides of the neck and flanks.

Apparently, at all seasons, and all ages, after the first moult, the Pied wagtail can be distinguished from the White wagtail by its very dark rump, the upper tail coverts only being dark in the latter species. The pied wagtails wings in relation to its body size are medium to small, the tail medium length, the neck short. the bill is short while the legs are short to medium length.

courtesy of PlanetEarthHD

History of the Pied wagtail.

This familiar little bird was once referred to as the Water wagtail and the country title of 'dish washer' is the commonest and as a consequence the best known of the British Wagtails. It is a smart and active little bird that frequents the sides of ponds and brooks {creeks}. In such localities they are often encountered at almost any time of the day, especially near water in open country in pasture farm land, at reed beds, Arable land, villages and towns. During the winter months they are often found on the car parks of supermarkets strutting around with the tail for ever bobbing up and down which gives this group of birds their common name.

Near water they may be observed nimbly running over stones, mud and aquatic vegetation or taking short upward forays in pursuit of insects. It is capable of running very quickly however, the flight is undulating and somewhat laboured.

Although Temminck and Valeillot were acquainted with this species as early as 1820, and recognized its distinctness from the White wagtail, English ornithologists confounded the two together until 1837, when Gould, with habitual keen eye for a species, pointed out the differences between them.

Illustration of the White Wagtail


History of confusion

The confusion between the two species seems to have derived from the imperfect diagnosis of Linnaeus, who doubtless knew the two species and considered them to be identical.He not only refers to both the Moticilla alba of Willughby and of Albin, which are unmistakably black backed birds, but also adopted the name which these ornithologists had used.

The Pied wagtail, although it is common, from its neat appearance and lively cheerful habits is always admired it loves to frequent the nieghourhood of water, which is almost as essential to its presence as it is to the dipper.

It frequents every variety of scenery, and may be seen daintily running around the margins of mountain pools and upland lakes, as well as near to ponds, brooks and large sheets of water in the low lying and richly cultivated districts. It is fond of frequenting meadows and old pastures and is often seen in the farm yard or running along the roofs of out buildings, or on country lanes, bathing in or wading through the little puddles busily in search of food.

Although Pied wagtails remain in Britain throughout the year, its favourite haunts rarely being completed deserted in in mid winter, many may retire southwards in the Autumn. These birds return in flocks at the beginning of spring.

Lifestyle of the Pied Wagtail

During the cold days of early March, when the air is still frosty and bracing, and the cold east winds are drying up the moisture of February, the Pied wagtails may be seen in flocks on the ploughed fields, sometimes accompanied by Meadow pipits, on their way to the lowland moors.

Stevenson in his book 'Birds of Norfolk' mentions a migratory arrival of these birds which he noticed at Teignmouth in Devonshire {southern England}. They appeared on the morning of March 20, and the grassy slopes near the sea were soon covered with them; but on the following day they had passed on, probably to their breeding grounds further north.

The birds never seem to hop but rather runs nimbly sometimes with the aid of its wings. The tail as previously mentioned is constantly in motion acting like a balancing-pole, and is usually spread out in a fan like manner when the bird alights or takes off. the flight is a drooping one, performed in a succession of curves or dips. It is capable of flying rapidly at times, for example early spring, when it is chasing a mate or rival to her affections.

They stand well upon their legs, the tail is almost horizontal to their body, consequently this allows them to wade in to shallow water without getting their plumage wet or run over soft mud without soiling it. Sometimes they will perch upon a tree, evidently quite at home among the branches. They are also fond of alighting on the roof of some out building and running nimbly along the ridge calling to each other, or making little sallies into the air in the manner of a flycatcher.

Pied wagtail with young


Breeding Wagtails.

The Pied wagtail is a somewhat early breeder, generally commencing operations in April The nest may be encountered in various locations. Sometimes it is placed under a convenient stone, or sometimes even in a disused drain pipe. However, the more general situations are in the holes in walls or rock cavities, among gnarled roots of trees, on the margin of a stream or in a rugged bank.

The nest itself is a somewhat bulky structure, thickly matted together, and made of dry grass, roots, moss and leaves. It is lined with feathers, wool and hair in a very neat fashion. Five to six eggs form the set. The ground colour is a greyish white or the palest of blue profusely speckled and spotted with greyish brown. Some specimens have the markings more or less streaky, and on many there are a few hair like streaks of a rich blackish brown.

The incubation period is about 13 days and the task is undertaken by the female. The young hatch downy, but blind and helpless. Usually there are two broods per season. When the chicks are born they are naked, but for a slight downy covering they are blind and helpless. However, within 15 days they are ready to fledge.

In the 1800,s Dixon wrote-" young Pied wagtails stay in their parents company for some time after they have quit the nest; indeed in some cases they will keep their company through the Autumn and Winter. It is a pleasing sight to see a young brood of Wagtails and their parents. The little creatures, some time before they are able to fly, will leave the nest and wait patiently the arrival of their parents with food. But upon the least alarm they take refuge in the nesting hole, as they do at nightfall".

During the breeding season the Wagtail displays a rather trusting nature and will often build its nest in the busiest and most frequented situations. I once knew a nest in a hole of the wall bordering a large sheet of water, in fact the nest was only a few inches from the margin of the water. I often observed the young birds running in and out of the entrance hole. I have also observed the mother feeding the chicks with some crumbs I had scattered for them.

When the young have gained full use of their wings the nest is abandoned for ever, and they are then seen on pastures and fallow fields. here they will still be fed by the parent birds and it is pleasing to observe the actions of both old and young at this period of time, as the latter with drooping wings welcome the arrival of their parents with food.

Gifted with great sight, the Wagtails can distinguish the smallest insect at incredible distances. The diet of the Wagtail consists of insects of various kinds, both picked up from the ground or caught in the air. They will also eat small beetles, for which it searches among manure and the leaves of plants and they find great quantities of larvae.

Conservation status

In the UK Pied wagtails as a species is on the Green list of conservation concern. The subspecies yarrellii is on the Amber list the criteria for which are losses in population/distribution of 25% -50% over the last forty years or so. The UK population of yarrellii is an important population.

Britain and Ireland hold most of the entire population of the distinctive dark race yarrellii, therefore population changes in the UK are of Global significance.

There are an estimated 470,000 pairs of Wagtail in 2009. {latest figure}

The European population of the White Wagtail is not a species of concern

UK Conservation Update September 1024

This familiar bird has seen a further decline of 11% between 1995 and 2012 according to figures revealed by the Breeding Bird Survey,conducted by the British Trust for Ornithology { The survey has been in annual use since it began twenty years ago.}

The race of Pied Wagtail that breeds in the UK, is a race that breeds virtually nowhere else in the world. Because of this fact, Sarah Harris,the survey organiser, stated this population decline is of Global Conservation significance.


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      aviannovice, Hi Deb glad to have introduced to this little bird that is a familiar sight in Europe. I hope to introduce you to more European birds in future articles, as you have introduced me to your birds. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      7 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Wonderful! This was a bird that I knew nothing about. Thanks so much for familiarizing me with it. It is a lovely bird, and reminds me a bit of my own Great-tailed Grackle, but the grackle keeps a nest in the trees.


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