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Pied Wagtail

Male Pied Wagtail
Male: Small black and white bird with a wagging long tail.
Female Pied Wagtail
Female: Like the male but greyer.

The Pied Wagtail is a small black and white (pied) bird with a long tail that is sometimes mistaken to be a young Magpie, but is much smaller than a Magpie; in fact, it is only a little bigger than a Great Tit. The most distinctive feature is its wagging tail - it never stops!

The differences in the plumage of males and females and at different times of the year are quite complicated:

  • The male's summer plumage has a white forehead, cheeks and belly; jet-black crown, nape, throat, breast, back, flanks, tail and wings, but the tail has white outer feathers and the wings have white wing bars and white edges.
  • The non-breeding male's winter plumage is greyer - there is less black on the breast and the flank is grey.
  • The female is mostly dark grey but the crown, throat, breast, rump and tail are black.

Juveniles are brownish-grey and often tinged with yellow.

There is another subspecies, the White Wagtail (M. a. alba) that is more common in Europe and has grey back, rump and wings. These sometimes are passage migrants in spring and autumn.

The Grey Wagtail and Yellow Wagtail both have some yellow on them.

First Winter
First Winter
Winter Male
Winter Male
White Wagtail
White Wagtail

Scientific Name Motacilla alba yarrelli
Length 18 cm  (7")
Wing Span 25-30 cm  (10-12")
Weight 20-27 g  (¾-1 oz)
Breeding Pairs 300000
Present All Year
Status Green

Distribution map - when and where you are most likely to see the species.


In flight, the Pied Wagtail utters a high-pitched "chissick" sound.

They sing their twittering song from a perch or in the air.


© Jean Roché,

© Jean Roché,


Pied Wagtails feed predominantly on insects that it finds while searching lawns, fields and verges. The insects are typically flies and caterpillars.

In areas where Pied Wagtails are common, you can often hear them calling as they fly over favourite hunting grounds to check if there is already a Pied Wagtail feeding there.


Pied Wagtails build their nest in holes in walls, buildings, or old nests of larger birds. Grass and mosses are used to construct the small cup-shaped nest.

They will use open-fronted nest boxes.

The eggs are pale grey with dark grey spots, smooth and glossy, and about 20 mm by 15 mm. The male and female take turns incubating the eggs, and both adults feed the young.

Breeding Starts Clutches Eggs Incubation (days) Fledge (days)
May 1-2 3-7 12-14 13-16


Pied Wagtails that breed in the uplands often move south and even across the English Channel to France for the winter, but otherwise the birds tend to be sedentary.


A Medium BTO Alert exists for the Pied Wagtail because their numbers alongside waterways have dwindled.