Pied Wagtail...The Gypsy Bird

The Pied Wagtail (Montacilla alba) is a common and widespread British bird which usually retreats from the North of Scotland in Winter. It may also be found from Iceland, Northern Norway and Novaya Zemlya in the Southern Hemisphere to the North Mediterranean Coast and North-West Africa. The habitat of the Pied Wagtail is located in many and varied open places (including fields, farmyards, parks and meadows). However, it does display a distinct preference to areas in the vicinity of water. In Winter, large communal roosts gather in the trees or buildings of city centers and even on industrial rooftops. The name "pied" comes from the bird's black-and-white coloration and "wagtail" from the perputual "wagging" of its tail.

The Pied Wagtail is an unmistakable bird with its bold black, grey and white plumage and long, fanned tail, which is frequently ragged in appearance. The adult Summer male of the species is jet black above, with a black head and breast, interrupted by white cheeks and forehead. The underparts are white with grey on the flanks. The Summer female is similarly patterned, but with dark slate-grey plumage on the back and wings. The Winter adult bird has a dark grey back with white face and throat surrounded by black markings. Immature birds tend to be much drabber (almost yellowish-grey in color) and less well-marked. The Pied Wagtail is a slender bird which grows to be approximately seven inches in length and weighs from seventeen to twenty-five grams. The bill is black and the eyes are hazel.

The Pied Wagtail nests from April through August. It will choose holes in buildings, thick vegetation, old nests of other species or the open style of nest box. It has also been known to use the abandoned nests of Swallows. The nest is usually built from leaves, twigs, moss and grass, then lined with feathers and hair. The female customarily lays two broods of three to five whitish eggs with dark spots. The incubation period is eleven to thirteen days. The Pied Wagtail is very attentive to its fledglings and will continue to feed and train them for three or four weeks after they are able to fly. The adult bird will also defend its chicks with great courage when in danger, or endeavor to draw aside the enemy by employing various little tricks. The Pied Wagtail is meticulous in the cleanliness of its nest and has been known to remove lightweight materials (such as paper or straw) which have been laid as a mark by which to find its home.

This is an ever-active bird which wags its long tail almost incessantly, even whilst standing still, and one which is often recognized because of its characteristic darting, flitting, running and chasing after insects...the Pied Wagtail's natural food. This bird may be tempted to inhabit gardens by the provision of mealworms, peanut granules or even something as simple as grated cheese. The flight of the Pied Wagtail is deeply undulating, almost awkward in style. Nonetheless, its black-and-white tail feathers make for a striking and most obvious bird when in flight. It has an explosive disyllabic "chis-ick" or "seel-vit" call, together with a one-note "chik." The song is a twittering version of the call, somewhat rambling and lively in its warble, and may be delivered from the ground, from a perch or while on the wing. It is sometimes given when other birds are being chased away, but the Pied Wagtail's main method of marking territories is through visual display.

The Pied Wagtail has adapted well to living alongside humans and most of its preferred habitats bring it into close contact with people. Therefore, it is as much a town-dweller as it is a country-dweller. However, this bird is not a particular favorite of nurserymen since it tends to foul tomatoes, chrysanthemums and carnation blooms.

The Pied Wagtail has severely declined from British waterways since the 1970s (which could be an indication of habitat problems) and it is far less common today than it was half a century ago. During the Winter months, large roosts are frequently seen in trees on the edges of supermarket cars parks and other such locations, which tend to be warmer than the equivalent places in the countryside. Approximately ten percent of British gardens have a resident Pied Wagtail, which will often become quite reasonably tame.

By classification, the Pied Wagtail belongs to the Passerine (or perching) family of birds, characterized by the feet being adapted for perching on trees or on the ground, rather than for grasping, wading or swimming. The Passerines have a slender bill, angular between the nostrils with the uper mandible notched. The wings have one of the scapulars as long as the closed wing, giving the bird a resemblance to the waders. The tail is long and kept constantly in vertical motion. The legs are also long and well-adapted for running into shallow water or mud in pursuit of insects, which are either caught on the wing or on the ground.

The Motacill alba yarrellii or White Wagtail, is the British sub-species of the Pied Wagtail and is commonly found throughout the rest of Europe. These two sub-species are not always easy to differentiate, but the Pied Wagtail is essentially a darker bird. Some old regional names for the Pied Wagtail include: "Lady Wagtail" (Somerset); "Dishwipe" and "Dishlick" (Sussex); and "Molly Washdish" (Hampshire and Somerset). In the Shetland area of Scotland, it is sometimes referred to as the "Kirk Sparrow."

Wagtail Poem
Wee Mister Wagtail, hopping on a rock,
Daddy says your pretty tail is like a Goblin's clock.
Wee Willie Wagtail, how I love to see,
Wee Willie Wagtail, wag his tail at me.
Wee Mister Wagtail, running by a pond,
Daddy says your pretty tail is like a Goblin's wand.

-- Old Irish Rhyme --

Wagtail Poem
Little Trotty Wagtail, he went in the rain
And twittering, tottering sideways, he ne'er got straight again.
He stooped to get a worm and looked up to get a fly,
And then he flew away ere his feathers they were dry.
Little Trotty Wagtail, he waddled in the mud
And left his little footmarks, trample where he would.
He waddled in the water pudge and waggle went his tail,
And chirrupt up his wings to dry upon the garden rail.
Little Trotty Wagtail, you nimble all about
And in the dimpling water pudge, you waddle in and out.
Your home is nigh at hand and in the warm pig stye.
So, Little Master Wagtail, I'll bid you a goodbye.

-- John Clare --
The Pied Wagtail

Emblem of the Gypsy Lore Society
Gypsy Lore Society Emblem
And Motto In Welsh Romani

"Oke Romano Chiriklo Dikasa E Kalen"
"Behold A Wagtail...And You Shall See The Gypsies"

Back to Romani Rise