Pied Wagtail

Pied Wagtails are a familiar but welcome sight round The Lizard.
Photo: Ilya Maclean

Scientific name: Motacilla alba

Other names: Tinner, Dishwasher (both are Cornish vernacular names for the species), Willy Wagtail

Conservation status: Not a species of concern in Europe.

Similar species: Compare with the Grey Wagtail and Yellow Wagtail.

Pied Wagtails are widely distributed and common across the UK, and most people will be familiar with both the sight of the bobbing long tail of this black and white small bird and their fast jerky dashes across grass or bare ground in search of insects to eat.

Generally found in open habitats, the male has a black crown and back (grey in its first winter) and a black breast band, with a white face and underparts. Females are fairly similar, but their back is dark grey rather than black. Juveniles also have grey backs. The Pied Wagtail most commonly found in Britain and Ireland is a subspecies (M. alba yarrelli). Another subspecies, generally found in Europe, is the White Wagtail (M. alba alba), which can be seen in Britain as a migrant in spring and autumn: with its grey back, it can be confused with Pied Wagtail females or first winter males. However, unlike the Pied Wagtail, the White Wagtail usually has some obvious yellow colouring, and the dark grey of its crown and breast band do not meet.

Pied Wagtails lay eggs in clutches of five to six, usually producing two broods between April and July.

The birds roost together, gathering at dusk. Although habitats such as reed beds form natural roost sites, they have adapted to using man-made structures, such as power stations and supermarkets.

Did you know…?

…They have an illustrious fan: a Pied Wagtail holding a Ragged Robin plant features prominently in the coat of arms of Nicholas Williams, a leading expert on the Cornish language, academic, writer and a bard of the Cornish Gorseth since a teenager.

…Pied Wagtails live for an average of two years, but the maximum recorded age (in 1988; BTO data) is over 11 years.

More information and references:

Gooders, J. and Harris, A., 1986. Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland. Kingfisher Books, London.

Published: September 2013
Author: Amanda Scott
Photos: Ilya Maclean