discover the grey wagtail, a beautiful long-tailed bird that is protected and revered in the natural world. learn about its striking appearance and fascinating behavior.

The Grey Wagtail: A Long-tailed Protected Bird

GardenBy Jun 09, 2024

The Grey Wagtail: A Long-tailed Protected Bird

The Grey Wagtail (Motacilla alba) is a medium-sized bird belonging to the passerine family. It can be either migratory or sedentary depending on the region it originates from, but it always travels in groups. As a protected species in France, the Grey Wagtail is frequently encountered in cities or their surroundings. Let’s take a closer look at this bird with its remarkable silhouette.

About the Grey Wagtail

  • Order: Passeriformes
  • Family: Motacillidae
  • Genus: Motacilla
  • Species: alba

Measuring about 19 cm in length with a wingspan of 30-32 cm, and weighing between 18 g to 30 g, the Grey Wagtail is recognizable by its unusual silhouette. It has a long tail that it vertically wags and short wings.

The Grey Wagtail has black and white plumage, with shades of gray. Its chest and throat have a black bib, while its mantle and back are covered in uniform ash-gray. The wings are more contrasting, predominantly black with white edges and barred with light-colored stripes. The tail is black with white borders, and the belly is white bordered by gray flanks. Its legs are black.

The head of the Grey Wagtail is black and white. The rear part of the crown, the nape, the chin, the pointed beak, and the throat are black, while the front, cheeks, and sides of the neck are white.

Male and female Grey Wagtails resemble each other, with little sexual dimorphism in this species. However, it can be observed that female has a less distinct plumage and the black color is less pronounced. Juveniles have even less contrasting plumage, with a dominant dark gray color.

The Grey Wagtail is known for its characteristic walking behavior, accompanied by wagging of its tail. Its flight is also unique, alternating between undulating flight and rapid wing beats.

The Grey Wagtail is recognized by its call, which consists of two syllables, while its song consists of a series of twittering notes similar to that of a swallow. Males tend to sing more in spring, perched on rooftops. Finally, the Grey Wagtail emits piercing cries in case of danger.

A Sociable and Urban-friendly Bird

The Grey Wagtail is highly present in cities and is unfazed by humans. With its characteristic colors and long tail, it easily catches the eye and is highly sociable, except during the breeding season. It moves in groups and can be observed in fields and meadows, walking on the ground with its tail bobbing up and down. At night, the groups gather to sleep in wooded areas.

However, once spring arrives, the Grey Wagtail becomes territorial and does not hesitate to defend its space. It is considered a partial migrant, as some populations migrate systematically, while others in the southern parts of its range are sedentary.

Habitat of the Grey Wagtail

The Grey Wagtail has a wide range, extending from Europe to Asia. It can be observed from Greenland and eastern Asia, including Alaska, to northern Russia and Morocco, from sea level to over 5,000 meters of altitude.

The northernmost populations migrate in winter to regions bordering the Mediterranean basin and tropical climates, particularly the Arabian Peninsula.

The Grey Wagtail is found in open and often wet areas where it can easily go about its activities on the ground. It prefers open habitats, which is why it frequents agricultural lands and the open spaces along bodies of water.

In urban areas, the Grey Wagtail can be observed in vacant lots, landfills, or on park lawns. It is not a shy bird and is attracted to and can adapt to various open habitats, especially when it can find abundant insects as a food source. However, it nests in crevices, both natural and artificial, hence its preference for various types of crevices for nesting.

An Insectivorous Diet

The Grey Wagtail is an insectivorous bird, and its menu varies depending on the prey available in its environment. It mainly feeds on dipterans such as flies, mosquitoes, and horseflies. However, beetles, including scarabs, ladybugs, longhorn beetles, stag beetles, and weevils, are also part of its diet.

To feed, the Grey Wagtail can employ three techniques. It can catch its prey directly on the ground, in mid-air, or on the surface of water or floating vegetation. Due to its diet of flies, this bird is often found in landfills, compost heaps, or near decomposing organic matter, including animal carcasses. It typically grasps small prey in one quick motion and gobbles it down immediately. With larger insects, it tends to hit them against the ground or a stone before consuming them.

Reproduction of the Grey Wagtail

The Grey Wagtail’s nesting period usually extends from April to July. Depending on their location, pairs may have multiple broods per year, typically two or three at most. However, this phenomenon is observed only in populations residing in temperate climates. In colder areas in the north of their range, pairs have only one brood per year.

The male establishes his territory through song. He perches prominently to court a female, and quarrels frequently occur as males compete to impress the female. Ultimately, it is the female that chooses her mate. After a few days of courtship, the newly formed couple mates.

Nest construction begins quickly after mating. The Grey Wagtail looks for crevices or deep cavities to build its nest. It can adapt to various nesting sites, including rooftops, wall fissures, quarries, riverbanks, bridges, or even wood storage areas. It may also occupy the nest of another bird species.

Both male and female contribute to the construction of the nest, with the female doing most of the work. She builds the nest using twigs, plant fibers, grass, roots, and moss, and lines it with fur, feathers, and wool.

Once the nest is ready, the female lays 5 to 6 grayish-blue eggs spotted with brown, which she incubates for about 15 days, mostly alone. The dedicated mother continues to brood the chicks for the first five days of their lives. Nourished by both parents, the chicks leave the nest after two weeks. However, each parent takes charge of a part of the brood and cares for them for another two weeks. It is possible for the female to start a new brood before the previous one is fully independent, in which case the father assumes full responsibility for the offspring.

The Grey Wagtail: A Gardener’s Ally

Due to its diet, the Grey Wagtail is a highly beneficial bird in the garden. It can effectively rid flower beds, vegetable gardens, and trees of flies, aphids, and other pest insects. Therefore, welcoming the Grey Wagtail to your garden can help naturally control unwanted pests.

This common species is not considered threatened. Well adapted to the urban environment, it has managed to find a place in cities to compensate for the threats to its rural habitat.

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I'm Jennifer. My hands are often covered in soil, and my heart is full of passion for nature. Through my writings, I share my personal gardening journeys, tips, and the joy of cultivating both plants and a community of fellow garden lovers. Every plant I grow adds a story to my life, and I love sharing those tales with my readers.