Wildlife In Focus | White Wagtail

David Coultham

Species Guide: White Wagtail (Motacilla alba)

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Video | Everything You Need To Know About The White Wagtail

Conservation Status

The White Wagtail species of birds allegedly consists of 10 different subspecies. The Pied Wagtail (Moticilla alba yarrellii) is a resident in the British Isles. Another member Moticilla alba alba can be found across Europe. The other members can be found across Asia and parts of North Africa, as well as in the Arctic. The validity of all these subspecies is questioned scientifically and can be explained by geographical isolation; as the only real differences that have emerged amongst the birds is the patterning of the feathers.

In the British Isles, the Pied Wagtail is by far the most common member of the wagtail family of birds, with populations increasing attributed to climate change4.They are registered as a Green Species in the UK and Least Concern from a global viewpoint.

Conservation Status

Conservation Status


White Wagtails are monochramatic consisting of the colors black, white, and grey in a distinctive pattern.


They are insectivores and are extremely adept at spotting and catching their prey in flight as well as on the ground. They will visit gardens to feed on seeds, especially during the winter when their preferred food is unavailable.


The White Wagtail can be found across the entirety of the British Isles including higher ground. However, the birds that inhabit higher ground do tend to migrate during the winter months. They can be found in pretty much any environment including urban areas. In particular, large flocks of Pied Wagtails can be seen in cities during the winter months; where they take advantage of the warmer air temperatures.

Note that this map is for a rough illustration of animal distribution across the UK1, whereby light green indicates established populations.

Did You Know? It is estimated that there are over 500 thousand breeding pairs1 in the British Isles alone!


As their name suggests, they have almost constantly wagging tail feathers. The reason for the wagging tail has not been determined from a scientific viewpoint, although theories have been put forward that it could indicate alertness, or to help uncover insects, or even to show its status5.

The White Wagtail is monogamous with the breeding season typically commencing mid-April through the end of June in the U.K. Both birds take responsibility for nest building which is a rough cup assembled from twigs, grass, and leaves, and then lined with feathers and fur. Traditionally they nest in river banks, but they have also taken to holes in walls, bridges, and buildings as viable nesting sites. A clutch of eggs is up to 6 eggs with up to 2 broods each season. Incubation of the eggs takes 13 days and is performed by the female. The youngsters are normally fully fledged after a further 2 weeks. The parents continue to feed the fledglings for approximately 1 week.

Pied Wagtail Call:

Frode Falkenberg, xeno-canto.org


Wing Length284 to 94 mm
Body Weight320.1 to 26.1 grams
Longevity2 Years but can leave up to 11 years


White Wagtails have several avian predators including Falcons & Hawks.


  1. Population data based on BTO assessment
  2. Featherbase
  3. RSPB
  4. Pearce-Higgins, J.W. & Crick, H.Q.P. (2019) One-third of English breeding bird species show evidence of population responses to climatic variables over 50 years. Bird Study 66: 159–172.   doi:10.1080/00063657.2019.1630360
  5. Randler, C. (2006). Is tail wagging in white wagtails, Motacilla alba, an honest signal of vigilance? Animal Behaviour71(5), 1089-1093.
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