Pied Wagtail in the UK – Your Essential Guide

The Pied Wagtail is a highly under-rated bird that isn’t difficult to spot but may also go overlooked. These birds are part of a broader family that includes two other sought-after species – the rarer Grey and Yellow Wagtails.

While many birders love ticking those species off of lists, they may walk past a Pied Wagtail on the street with very little regard. This seems unfair on a bird that is just as pretty and has the same amount of charm. The Pied Wagtail is a regular sight in towns and a great opportunist feeder that takes advantage of the urban landscape. So, let’s learn more about this species and why they are so under-rated.

How To Tell Pied Wagtails Apart From Other Wagtails

The easiest way to tell these birds apart from the other UK wagtail species is their appearance. As the name suggests, this is a black and white bird. Pied is a name given to many birds, such as those that have a combination of black and white markings.

The Pied Flycatcher, for example, has black and white patterning, as is perhaps the bird that most closely resembles the Pied Wagtail. But, the shape and behaviour of the two birds also make them very different. The Pied Wagtail has a body that is low to the ground with a long tail straight out behind it. It also has a short bill that is great for catching insects and black legs.

The other two species of Wagtail in the UK are very different in appearance. You may see Grey Wagtails in some of the same locations as Pied Wagtails, especially when they come into coastal towns in winter, but it is difficult to mistake them.

You will see the same shape and flicking tail, but the Grey Wagtail has a grey back and yellow near the base of the tail. There are dominant black markings. This is also true for the Yellow Wagtail, but this one has a lot more yellow plumage across the underside and bib.

Why Are Some Pied Wagtails Darker Than Others?

When watching these little birds flying around town, you may notice that they don’t always look alike. There are times when these birds seem quite pale, with little in the way of black markings and a grey tone across the back. Other times, the black markings on the head and chest with be dark and pronounced. So why is this the case?

There are factors to take into consideration here. The first is that you may be looking at a male in breeding plumage against a paler juvenile or female bird. Alternatively, you may be looking at the European version of this wagtail species.

This bird has evolved to be paler than the British Isles species in mainland Europe. It is often called the White Wagtail or Alba Wagtail instead. The two sub-species can intermix as birds migrate to the UK and mingle with resident populations. These types of genetic differences are not uncommon in the evolution of species.

Gene pools in one region can favour specific characteristics like colouration or other small details. This is seen in individual populations of Red Squirrel, some of which are much darker brown. The Isles of Scilly even has its own sub-species of shrew due to a lack of external genetic influences.

What Is The Difference Between A Pied Wagtail And A White Wagtail?

The Pied Wagtail and the White Wagtail appear very similar in size, colour, identical in their behaviour and are of the same species. However, they are actually different subspecies. The Pied Wagtail has black feathers which appear almost grey in some females, in place of the lighter grey colour of the White Wagtail.

Pied Wagtails Are At Home In Both Towns And Near Rivers.

Another important defining trait is that Pied Wagtails have different habits when it comes to choosing a home. In addition to choosing holes and crevices for their nests, they are regularly found in urban environments.

There are many people that live in cities with no garden of their own that find comfort in local colonies of Pied Wagtails. These birds can prove to be a big help for connecting with nature in an otherwise grey landscape.

Not only are the birds pretty cute, but they are fun to watch as they dance around pigeons and gulls, flicking their tails and trying to pick up what food they can. If you walk through most high streets, there is a good chance that one will make an appearance.

Why Are Pied Wagtails So Successful In Towns?

The success of Pied Wagtails in urban environments relates to the success experienced by a lot of other city-dwelling creatures. They have taken advantage of the opportunity to expand into an area with more places to nest and feed and make good use of the local environment to create a niche not used by the other wagtail species.

But, this doesn’t mean that they won’t also visit gardens if they want to. There isn’t usually much need for a Pied Wagtail to look for supplemental food in a garden. But, they won’t say no to seed and scraps left behind if they pass by.

Look Out For Pied Wagtail Roosts In The Winter.

One of the great joys of having Pied Wagtails in a local urban area is that they will form large roosts. These sites are animated communities where the birds can get together to stay warm and safe over cold winter nights. They will often return to the same tree, somewhere they know they will be safe from potential predators.

The combination of the body heat of the birds and the warmer temperatures in cities means that urban colonies have a better chance of survival than small groups in the countryside. There are cases of roosts containing hundreds and sometimes thousands of these birds.

Pied Wagtails will also create roosts in rural areas, but not always on the same scale. Many bird species will head to reed beds close to their feeding sites where they can sleep unseen and get pretty cosy together.

Different species will congregate here, again working on that idea of greater safety in numbers. Pied Wagtails may be among them, along with others like Starlings and wading birds. If the birds are spooked, such as by a passing Peregrine Falcon hopeful for a meal, they can leave as a group, confuse the bird, and increase the chance of making it back alive.

Does That Mean That Pied Wagtails Mummurate?

This is an interesting piece of animal behaviour that doesn’t appear to apply to Pied Wagtails. While they will join Starlings and other birds at roosting spots and showcase similar roosting behaviour in towns and cities, they don’t murmurate.

Murmuration is when Starlings group together in the sky and form impressive patterns. This formation flying is an impressive spectacle that isn’t fully understood. The idea of flying in formation for safety in numbers doesn’t explain why they leave the safety of the roost under piers or in buildings.

A theory is that it enhances bonds as their chattering also acts as a way of socialising and talking about their day. Pied Wagtails presumably don’t bother with this ritual at their roost as it isn’t beneficial to them.

What Do Pied Wagtails Eat?

Pied Wagtails will take a wide range of food items and the diversity can vary depending on their location. Urban birds have the chance to take insects that they find on the streets but will also pick them out of cars. Bugs easily end up caught on wing mirrors and windscreens and there is no point in them going to waste.

The birds can quickly fly up there, take their pick, and leave without bothering anyone. The feeding style of these birds is a little more frenzied than that of other birds that may wait for a moment to strike. They can chase after prey, darting about on pavements and the gutters of the road. They will also spend a lot of time doing the same upon rooftops where they may find a good selection in a safer spot.

This approach isn’t without its risks, especially if insect numbers are low in the area. But, there are influxes of creatures at times, such as flying ant day, that are very beneficial. While we are closing the windows to avoid these winged ants, birds like the Wagtail snap them up as fast as they can.

This is partly why the ants emerge in such large numbers; they know that birds like wagtails will take a good percentage and swarm to overwhelm the predators. They can’t all be eaten. While insect life is limited, they may resort to other scraps left by humans.

Rural wagtails may enjoy a wider menu of invertebrates based on the biodiversity of the areas. This is especially true for those birds that stick closer to their Grey or Yellow Wagtail cousins near watercourses. These birds will take a lot of terrestrial insect life, from worms to beetles and snails, as well as flies and other flying insects.

Those who hunt by the water will also find aquatic creatures, dragonflies, and maybe even crustaceans. Studies even show fish fry in the diets. If that wasn’t enough, studies also highlight the opportunistic nature of these birds with their love of maggots.

These nutritious nuggets of protein are best found on rotting carcasses. So, if you ever see a Pied Wagtail picking at a dead pigeon on the street or a dead animal by a river, that is probably what they are doing.

Where Do Pied Wagtails Nest?

Of course, it isn’t just winter when these birds will make good use of a warmer place to sleep. Urban Pied Wagtails like to nest in a wide variety of locations where they will be safe and have a better chance of incubating their chicks. Residual heat from the chosen location, such as around an energy generator or other heat source, can allow birds to leave the nest unattended for slightly longer periods. The range of nesting sites is diverse, with successful nests found in cars and greenhouses too.

Over in the countryside, these birds don’t have the same sort of luxury when building nests. So, they will find holes in trees, log piles, and other similar locations for that extra insulation and protection.

Why Do Pied Wagtails Wag Their Tails?

The term Wagtail sounds a little odd until you take the time to watch these birds in their natural habitat properly. If you sit on a bench and study these little Pied Wagtails in action, you will see that not only are they highly energetic, but they are continually flicking that long tail up and down.

This is called wagging and explains the bird’s name. What is a little harder to explain is why this bird does this so often. There is no apparent purpose to it, to the point where it looks like an involuntary tic. So, what is actually going on?

One of the theories is that tag wagging isn’t a sign of emotion, like a wagging dog tail, but is a social cue to other birds in the flock. Some say it is a way of showing the birds status, while others see it as a signal that they are alert to potential predators.

Another theory is that the continual tag wagging has something to do with their hunting strategy and flushing out prey. This may work for the rural birds out by rivers, but not so much for the wagtails picking up scraps on pavements.

It could simply be that this behaviour is so deeply built into the birds that it serves little purpose in these modern surroundings. Whatever the reason for the cute behaviour, it helps add to the charm of these little birds.

Take A Second Look At The Pied Wagtails In Your Area

Whatever the reason for the tail wagging, you won’t help but notice it the next time you see one of these birds. Pied Wagtails aren’t dull little black and white birds. They are engaging little creatures that have taken full advantage of the warmer food-filled urban environments offered. Take the time to stop by one of their large winter roosts or watch them feed in the gutter as they enrich the local landscape.

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I'm Wayne. For many years, I have been a fan of feeding the birds in my back garden and often asked myself questions about what I was seeing. This prompted me to research things further and I have continued to do so ever since. This is the site where I share everything I have learned.

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