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Wagtails - Aptly Named Birds

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Photograph of a pied wagtail

There are 12 birds in the genus Motacilla that are named Wagtails after their habit of almost-constantly wagging their tails.

They measure around 18cm (7in) in length. They mostly eat insects and tend to live near water. Some stay close to where they hatched, such as in the UK, while others migrate, eg from Europe to Central Africa. Females lay around six eggs. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs and finding food. The eggs hatch after about two weeks, and the chicks can fly at about two weeks old. The oldest wagtail known to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) was a 13-year-old White Wagtail.

White Wagtail

The White Wagtail (Motacilla alba), also known as the Pied Wagtail, is the most widespread and numerous of the wagtails - its range stretches across Africa, Europe and Asia, and even into Alaska in North America. Their plumage is black, white and grey, but the proportions of each colour can vary. They can be found in a variety of habitats, from meadows to beaches, and even car parks! They eat insects and also take advantage of food provided by humans, such as breadcrumbs.

Grey Wagtail

The Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) is found in Africa, Europe and Western Asia. These birds have grey backs and heads plus yellow breast plumage.

Yellow Wagtails

The Western Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) is found in Africa, Europe and Western Asia. These birds have yellow breast plumage and olive-green backs and heads. The Eastern Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla tschutschensis) is found in East Asia and Alaska. Its colouring is brighter yellow than its cousins'. The Citrine Wagtail (Motacilla citreola) is found in Asia and Eastern Europe. These birds have a yellow breast and face, and grey backs.

African Wagtails

The African Pied Wagtail (Motacilla aguimp), as its name suggests, is found only in Africa. Its plumage is black and white. The Cape Wagtail (Motacilla capensis) is found in central and southern Africa. Its plumage is grey and white, apart from a black V on its breast. The Mountain Wagtail (Motacilla clara) is found in wetlands and mountainous areas of central and southern Africa. Its plumage is mostly grey and white, apart from a black U on its breast.

Mekong Wagtail

The Mekong Wagtail (Motacilla samveasnae), as its common name suggests1, is found only in the area around the Mekong River that flows through Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Its plumage is grey, black and white. It is classed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List as its habitat is vulnerable (eg projects to build dams on the river may put these birds at risk).

Japanese Wagtail

The Japanese Wagtail (Motacilla grandis) is found in Japan and also in South Korea. Its plumage is also black and white.

Madagascar Wagtail

The Madagascar Wagtail (Motacilla flaviventris) is found only on the island of Madagascar. Its colouring is similar to that of the Grey Wagtail, but it also has a black V on its breast.

White-browed Wagtail

The White-browed Wagtail (Motacilla maderaspatensis) has black and white plumage, with a distinctive white stripe over its eyes. It is found in India and surrounding areas.

Photograph of a pied wagtail
1The Latin name commemorates Sam Veasna, an ornithologist from Cambodia who died of malaria in 1999 at the age of 33.

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