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 Pied Wagtail - Fact File
Pied Wagtail
Motacilla alba
Common and widespread resident, retreating from the north of Scotland in winter. The continental race (White Wagtail) is a regular passage migrant.
Occurs in a wide variety of open places including fields, farmyards, parks, meadows, and shows a preference to the vicinity of water. In winter large communual roosts gather in city centre trees or buildings or on industrial rooftops.

Unmistakable with its bold black, grey and white plumage and long, frequently wagged tail. Male (illustated) has black back, while females is slate grey. The continental race, White wagtail, is much greyer.

18cm (7")



Pied Wagtail

Thanks to the kindness of Annabelle Howe I have been alerted to a roost of pied wagtails in the grounds of a local hotel. The birds arrive as the light begins to fade, first assembling on rooftops before circling at speed while excitedly calling. Then all plummet straight into the roost-site. A birch tree in a very sheltered corner is favoured. Here they are illuminated by powerful lighting.

As the wagtails jostle for position there is a loud and sustained twittering chorus, but this performance fades once any latecomers have put in appearances. The birds do not huddle together even on frosty nights.

The communal roosting habit of pied wagtails has been widely studied. Sites are varied ranging from reedbeds to the thick foliage of bushes and shrubs and also inside buildings (including Bacton Gas terminal). At sewage works the wagtails will even roost carousel-fashion, on the rotating arms at treatment centres. Many sites are traditional and have been regularly occupied for years. Roosts may contain tens, hundreds sometimes thousands of pied wagtails.

One of the largest in this country (situated in a Kentish reedbed) has held over 5000 birds in September. Some roosts are occupied all-year with the largest numbers between August and March when residents and migrants roost together. Others are used only in autumn, or spring and autumn.

Commercial greenhouses have been favoured among buildings as wagtail roosts — and as nesting sites. Again traditional, over 30 years is the longest known period of occupation. There are several advantages in using such sites. Under glass the birds are sheltered from rain and wind. There are even observations, during very cold conditions, of close rows of hundreds of wagtails perching on the actual hot-water pipes.

But when an enemy can enter, the greenhouse acts as a death trap. At one site a cat killed over 50 birds. At another little owls wreaked havoc. To the majority of nurserymen, pied wagtails are hardly welcome because they foul tomatoes, and chrysanthemums and carnation blooms.


By Michael J. Seago

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.