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The Grey Wagtail {Birds of Europe}

Updated on August 1, 2015

Grey wagtail

Originally posted to Flickr. Image taken in HongKong
Originally posted to Flickr. Image taken in HongKong | Source


The Grey wagtail belongs to the order of birds known as the Passeriformes {perching birds} and the family Motacillidae. They have been allocated the scientific name of Motacilla from the Greek Muttex,a bird described by Hesychius. The specific name of cinerea derives from the Latin cinereus indicating ash coloured from cinis-ashes.

In the UK the bird is placed on the Amber list of Conservation Concern {declines in population distribution of between 25-50% over the last forty years or so} due to breeding declines. There are an estimated 35,000 pairs in the UK during the summer months. In Ireland they are Green Listed {no current concerns}. {Source the BTO}

The European population size is estimated at between 710,000 and one million pairs and is classed as secure. The populations vary from country to country. There follows some examples. In Austria there is an estimated 25-50,000 breeding pairs,Belgium 5,100-8,300 breeding pairs, Croatia 5-10,000 breeding pairs,France,40-120,000 breeding pairs, Germany,27,43,000 breeding pairs,Spain 20,-100,000 breeding pairs and Ukraine 9-13,000 breeding pairs. {source Birdlife}

The Gaelic name for the bird Breacan-baintighearna, the Welsh,Siglen Llywd and the Irish Glasog Liath.

The birds breed locally in Eurasia and north Africa. Winters southern Asia and Southern Africa. They are encountered by the banks of swift streams and lakes and near waterfalls. In the breeding season along rivers,moorland and marshy pastures on farmland.

Here we look at the species, its lifestyle and breeding habits. As always we commence with a description of the subject under review.

Grey wagtail and habitat

Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley
Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley | Source

Eastern wagtail is an American species


Description of the Grey wagtail

In breeding plumage the male grey wagtail has a black chin and throat {which is much paler and less distinctive in the winter. there is a white stripe over the eye, and mid-grey upper parts from the back to the cap.

The underparts are yellow, whiter on the sides {again less yellow in winter}. They have a very long blackish tail brighter yellow under-tail. When in flight a greenish-yellow rump is evident and brown black wings with a long,broad central stripe. They are 18-19 cm { Seven to seven and a half inches}-long and they weigh between 15-23 grams.

In relation their body size the wings are short to medium length, the tail long,the neck short, the bill short, and the legs short to medium length. The flight is very dipping . They run and walk,constantly moving their tail up and down from which these birds take their common name, often perches on rocks and stones in streams.

The female lacks the black throat and can be told by the generally duller plumage. They are exceedingly graceful birds.

The family Motaciilidae are a family of small perching birds with medium to long tails. There are thought to be 65 species in 6 Genera that include the wagtails,long-claws and the pipits. In America the wagtails are represented by species such the Eastern Wagtail Moticilla tschutschensis. { Alaska}

Youtube courtesy of wildaboutimages-- Paul Bunyard

General information and historical notes

In great Britain the Grey wagtail is resident,breeding chiefly in the mountainous districts but not strictly so, breeding at lower levels in the north. It ia a species particularly fond of the vicinity of water,haunting mountain streams, fast flowing rivers and tumbling torrents, very similar to the haunts of the dipper. However, it is not only seen in the wilder regions,even during the breeding season.

The food of this bird consists largely of insects, their larvae,centipedes,spiders and small mollusca; but in winter the last mentioned, small worms and a few seeds are eaten.

There is perhaps no member of the feathered fraternity found in the UK, more elegant in shape, more nimble and dexterous in movement or more handsome in plumage than the grey wagtail. The most indifferent observer who happens to encounter a pair of these pretty birds by the side of some sparkling stream, running rapidly over stones and rocks or flying for a few yards with a lovely graceful movement, cannot fail to be charmed with their beauty and agility.

It is very rarely seen except singly or at most in pairs and apparently they shun the society of other birds. Now and again the bird may be observed running quickly along the top of some shed or farm out building in pursuit of flies and other small insects.

The note of the grey wagtail is not very strong and may be described as a shrill 'tweet,tweet' which is repeated in a louder key, and more frequently when the bird is suddenly disturbed and takes to flight. Under any circumstances however, it seldom flies to any great distance , and soon returns to the waterside as before. Others describe the note as sounding like 'Chiz,chiz,chizzel,chizzet' so that an accurate observer has stated --" it seems very fond of the letter Z"

The same writer in a contribution to the Natural History, remarked-" I have been amused with a singular habit which I have noticed in several individuals of the grey wagtails. they were fond at looking at their own images in the windows, and attacking them, uttering their particular cry, pecking and fluttering against the glass, as earnestly as if the object they saw had been a real rival,instead of an imaginary one. or perhaps they were admiring themselves and testifying their satisfaction in this way."

" It is remarkable, that two of these instances were in the autumn, when the same motives of either love or animosity which would be likely in to activate them in spring, would no longer exist.The first of these instances occurred when I was a boy,and was repeated daily, and almost hourly, both against the windows of my father's house, and those of that of our neighbour;who being rather supersitious,was alarmed about it, and came to consult my mother on the subject.. " She said there was a bird, which was continually flying against the windows,and as the birds were not in the habit of doing so at any other time, she thought some serious calamity was portended by it."

" My mother comforted her as well as she could; and I undertook to rid her of the annoyance by setting a horse hair noose on one of the window ledges, which it was in the habit of frequenting. I soon caught it and by plucking out the under tail coverts which I wanted to make some yellow duns with {artificial flies for trout fishing}, I effectually cured it of its propensity"


Meyer {1844} Courtesy of the BHL
Meyer {1844} Courtesy of the BHL

Grey wagtails in captivity

Before wild birds became fully protected by law it was common place for them to be captured and taken into captivity . They were used as cage birds and aviary species. Indeed bird catcher's made a good living selling the birds to various purchasers. This would rightly be frowned upon to day, however, it is part of our avian history and is worthy of a mention. There follows some historical notes and observations on the subject.

In autumn and winter these birds were frequently caught in the nets and traps of bird catcher's particularly those of Kent and Surrey, who by no means regarded them as a prize capture, and willingly parted with them for a price of between nine and eighteen pennies depending on the purchaser.

Early in the 1896, Butler writes that his postman had informed him of a foreign bird that had flew into his house, and asked him had he lost one. He replied in the negative, and asked for information about the form ,colour etc. Finally the postman took it round to Butler who remarks-" I recognized it at once as being a male grey wagtail just commencing its change of plumage, the man had been trying to feed it canary seed, and when he discovered that it would need special soft food and insects, he willingly gave it to me"

Butler went on to say " My first experience of this charming little bird in captivity, was in September 1888, when a friend netted two females and gave them to me. I turned them out, into a large cage, but one of them refused to eat,and died the following day;the other bird I transferred to a large aviary,where ,in three days, it became so tame that it not only took meal worms from my fingers, but ran between my feet as I stood in the aviary;moreover,within a year it followed me about, and whenever, I passed by the aviary it would fly up to the wire and call me."

" Unhappily I turned in a cock Pied wagtail with it, and the latter bird so persecuted the poor thing { invariably chasing it away from food when it attempted to eat }, that early in December 1889, it died of starvation." Several years ago,{ 1892 } Mr.Staines, of Penge, formerly a rather successful exhibitor of wagtails, gave me a male of this species which had been for some time in his possession. I turned it out into a cool aviary, where it came into superb plumage aviary ,and soon became tame though less so than my first {female} example; this and the second male previously referred to,were still flourishing when I wrote this article, but Mr, Staine's bird has since died {August 1896}"

Grey Wagtail with captured insect

taken in the Manali District of  Himachal Pradesh India
taken in the Manali District of Himachal Pradesh India | Source

Nest and eggs of the grey wagtail

The grey wagtail is double brooded and usually commences its first nest in April. They generally select a rocky bank, a hole in a wall of an old water mill and other waterside buildings, or a crevice in a bank, under an overhanging ledge and well concealed by herbage, but it seems there is no rule without exceptions. Seebohm {1885}, remarks he once saw one built in the fork of three stems of an alder,close to the ground,almost overlapping the river. Butler {1900} tells us that he found a nest in Kent { southern England}, from which he flushed the female bird, built in a furrow of a ploughed field near the creek at Kemsley close to Sheppey.

The nest is constructed of root fibre, interwoven with coarse dry grass,cow and horse hair and wool. Lilford says that it " Much resembles that of the Pied wagtail,but is considerably smaller" Feathers are rarely used in the lining it is an open cup shaped structure.

the female lays 4-6 eggs { usually 5} of a speckled buff appearance, the ground colour being creamy, thickly covered with pale brown speckles. Some slender black streaks may occasionally be seen among the pale,close markings.

The female will incubate the eggs for 13-14 days. Both parents feed the young which are ready to leave the nest in a further 14-15 days. The young birds in autumn much resemble the autumn and winter plumage of the adults. Young birds before their first moult,have the grey back strongly tinged with olive and the stripe over the eye indistinct and soiled with yellow.

UK Conservation updates September 2014

The latest breeding Bird Survey undertaken by the British Trust For Ornithology revealed that there has been a decline of 32% in breeding bird populations since the Survey first began 20 years ago.


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb they really are handsome birds and so nimble and graceful. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      What beauties these are! I would love to see birds hanging around the rocks of a stream. What a photographic opportunity in a lovely wood.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Ericdieker, Thank you for your visit and your appreciated comments. Best wishes to you.


      hello Devika , Glad to have introduced you to this species. Your comments are very kind and your vote up,interesting, beautiful and useful are such a compliment,Thank you. Best wishes.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      6 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      I like the color of the beautiful Wagtail bird. So much to learn about this species. Only four to six eggs incredible! My first read about another different species of birds. Voted up, beautiful, interesting and useful.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      6 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Very interesting, beautiful.


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