Can you find the wagtail in the garden? And is the wagtail colored yellow? What do the nest and young birds look like? You can find out this and more in our article on the white wagtail.
White wagtails search for food on the ground [Photo: Wolfgang Kruck / Shutterstock.com]
The white wagtail ( Motacilla alba ) belongs to the family of stilts and pipits (Motacillidae) and is slightly larger than a tit or a sparrow. Recognizable by their typical stilting gait and high-contrast plumage, the wagtail likes to strut through open, moist meadow areas in search of food or sing from high waiting areas to mark their territory. The bird can also be observed in parks and gardens with large lawns. Everything else you need to know about wagtails and how you can support the birds in your own garden can be found here with us.
White wagtail: profile
Table of Contents
|size||About 18 cm|
|Weight||Approx. 25 g|
|Breeding season||April June|
|lifespan||Up to 10 years|
|habitat||Open areas, preferably near water|
|Feed preference||Insects and spiders|
|Threats||Decline in food and habitat, human hunting while on the move, death from car traffic|
This is how you recognize the wagtail
White wagtails are characterized by their slender, long-legged shape, a long, always bobbing tail and high-contrast plumage. The back and wing of the animals are light gray, the belly, flanks and face are pure white. In their splendid plumage, the birds also present a deep black crown and an equally dark, large throat patch that extends to the base of the beak. Outside the breeding season, the animals are a bit simpler. Then the parting is only light gray and the throat patch is greatly reduced, but still easily recognizable.
Wagtails are easy to spot
By the way, if you see a bird that looks something like the white wagtail but has a yellow belly, it is not a color defect, but one of two closely related but rarer species: the yellow wagtail ( Motacilla flava ) or the gray wagtail ( Motacilla cinerea ).
For comparison: the gray wagtail has a yellow belly [Photo: Stephan Morris / Shutterstock.com]
What is the difference between female and male wagtails?
Females and males do not differ very much in the wagtail. The only distinguishing feature is the parting, which in the males is deep black up to the neck and contrasts with the gray back. In the females, on the other hand, the neck is colored dark gray and thus forms a somewhat softer transition to the light back. However, this distinguishing feature is lost in the plain dress.
What does wagtail singing sound like?
The song of the wagtail consists of a light, two-syllable “Dschi-witt”, which is often performed from a high vantage point. So if you hear a wagtail singing, it’s worth looking for it on the roof of the next building, for example. Similar two-syllable calls are made in flight.
Here you can listen to the wagtail singing:
White wagtails like to sing from high waiting areas [Photo: Seppo Miettinen / Shutterstock.com]
How do you recognize a young wagtail?
Young wagtails already have the same upright, stilt-like shape as their parents. The long tail is also well developed. However, their plumage lacks the black color of the adult animals. The chest is only adorned with a dark triangle surrounded by dirty white feathers. In the adult animals, even in their simple dress, the black patch on the chest clearly stands out from the snow-white background.
Young wagtails are less contrasting [Photo: Pavel Mikoska / Shutterstock.com]
What do wagtail eggs look like?
Wagtails lay brown-spotted eggs about 2 x 1.5 centimeters in size. Five or six eggs are placed in a cup-like nest made of twigs, moss and other plant fibers, the hollow of which is padded with animal hair and feathers.
The eggs of the wagtail are embedded in a soft nest [Photo: Jasiek03 / Shutterstock.com]
Which habitat do the wagtails prefer?
Wagtails love open spaces where they can hunt for insects on the ground. Sunny places where there is a lot of food are particularly popular. In addition, wagtails are often found near bodies of water. Nest-friendly structures such as embankments, smaller groups of trees or buildings are also important for the habitat.
Where does the wagtail build their nest?
The wagtail builds their nest on steep banks, in tree hollows and building niches or in open fields. In general, the nesting structures are more likely to be found near the ground. The nests themselves are mainly built by the female, which takes about a week – the male only participates sporadically. Good nests are often reused over several years. Wagtails often breed close to humans and have already made many artificial structures their own.
Wagtail nest on a tractor [Photo: Serhiy Kozodavov / Shutterstock.com]
When is the wagtail breeding season?
The wagtail breeding season extends from April to June. During this time, a breeding pair can raise up to three broods under ideal conditions. The eggs are incubated for 11 to 17 days, with the female doing most of the work here too. After hatching, both parents feed the young birds for two weeks. Then they fly out and are only supported by their parents for a few days before they are left to fend for themselves.
After leaving the nest, young wagtails are only fed for a short time [Photo: Lukas Zdrazil / Shutterstock.com]
Where does the wagtail spend the winter?
Most wagtails spend the winter in the warm areas of the Mediterranean. Sometimes the birds also migrate far into Africa or even stay in their breeding areas. The birds can therefore seldom be observed with us in the cold winter months. For this purpose, adult males often set themselves up foraging areas that they defend well. Young birds and female wagtails, on the other hand, travel in smaller groups and look for food together in the barren landscape.
Support the white wagtail in the garden: This is how it works
Open, damp meadows are becoming increasingly rare in our increasingly intensively used landscape. That is why wagtails take refuge in settlements, parks and gardens. Here you can find out how to greet the birds in a friendly way in your own garden.
What do wagtails eat?
Wagtails mainly feed on insects and spiders. Berries or seeds are rarely accepted. The hunters like to stalk through areas with short grass and catch small flying insects or other crawling animals. Those who can call their own a garden with a lot of open space offer the wagtail ideal hunting grounds. However, avoid using chemical sprays in your garden, as these reduce the supply of insects and can even poison birds via the food chain.
White wagtails are insectivores
Which nest boxes are suitable for wagtails?
If you want to offer the wagtail a nest box in your garden, you should use a so-called half-cave box. Compared to classic tit boxes, these are not equipped with a small entrance hole, but offer a larger entrance opening.
In our special article, you can find out how you can generally build a nesting box yourself, where to hang it up and how to clean it properly.
How can you additionally support the wagtail?
Wagtails are dependent on a rich supply of insects. An insect-friendly garden can therefore make a huge difference. But wild and bustling areas are also extremely valuable in our landscape. Therefore, advocate sustainable and extensive use of our landscape. Purchasing organically grown food, for example, can contribute to this. Because by buying organic products you are helping to cultivate the landscape in a more ecological and therefore more bird-friendly way.
In the eyes of the wagtail, your garden reaps another plus point by offering a small watering hole such as an artificial stream, a small pond or just a bird bath.
White wagtails are happy about a bathing area [Photo: goran_safarek / Shutterstock.com]
Other garden birds are also happy to be able to swim on hot days. Take a look at our portraits of house martins, goldhammer & Co.