Pied wagtail: bird profile & identification


I am particularly interested in garden wildlife which is why I did my Master's degree with a focus on "animal ecology". I am convinced that beneficial insects and wildlife are a sustainable and effective alternative to many of the products we use on our plants. I am also a passionate birdwatcher and rarely go for a walk without my binoculars.

Favourite fruit: kiwi, apple and redcurrant
Favourite vegetables: tomatoes and green beans

Can you find pied wagtails in gardens? And what do pied wagtail juveniles and females look like? Read on to find out this and more.

Black and white wagtail searching for food on wet grassy ground
Wagtails search for food on the ground [Photo: Wolfgang Kruck/ Shutterstock.com]

The pied wagtail (Motacilla alba), also known as the white wagtail or black and white wagtail, belongs to the Motacillidae family of wagtails, longclaws and pipits and is slightly larger than a tit or a sparrow. Recognisable by its typical stilt-like gait and contrasting plumage, the wagtail likes to strut through open, wet meadows in search of food or sing from high vantage points to mark its territory. The bird can also be seen in parks and gardens with large lawns. Everything else you need to know about white wagtails and how you can support the birds in your garden can be found below.

Pied wagtail: key facts

SizeAbout 18 cm
WeightUp to 25 g
Breeding seasonApril-June
LifespanUp to 10 years
HabitatOpen space, preferably near water
Food preferencesInsects and spiders
ThreatsLoss of habitat and food sources, human hunting during migration, death from car traffic

How to identify a pied wagtail

Pied wagtails are characterised by their slender, stilt-like legs, a long, always bobbing tail and contrasting plumage. The bird’s back and upper wings are light grey, while the belly, sides and face are pure white. They also have a deep black crest and an equally dark, large throat patch that extends to the base of the bill. Outside of the breeding season, the birds look more plain as their crests are only light grey, and their throat patches are much smaller, but still clearly visible.

Wagtail bird with black, grey and white plumage
White wagtails are easily recognised

Incidentally, if you see a bird that looks like the pied wagtail but has a yellow belly, it is not a colour defect but one of two closely related yet rarer species: the yellow wagtail (Motacilla flava) or the grey wagtail (Motacilla cinerea).

Grey wagtail bird with grey and yellow plumage
In comparison: the grey wagtail has a yellow belly [Photo: Stephan Morris/ Shutterstock.com]

How to tell pied wagtail females and males apart

Female and male white wagtails do not differ very much. The only distinguishing feature is the crown, which in males is deep black up to the nape and contrasts sharply with its grey back. In females, the nape is dark grey and blends more softly to its pale back. When the birds have plainer plumage, however, this distinguishing feature is lost.

What does the pied wagtail call sound like?

The white wagtail call consists of a bright, two-syllable “chissick”, which is often heard from a high vantage point. So, if you hear a wagtail singing, it is worth looking up to the roof of the nearest building. Similar two-syllable calls are also made in flight.

White wagtail calling from high ledge
White wagtails like to sing from high perches [Photo: Seppo Miettinen/ Shutterstock.com]

What do juvenile pied wagtails look like?

Young wagtails already have the same upright, stilt-like shape as their parents, and they have also already developed their long tail. However, their plumage lacks the black colouring of the adults. The breast is only embellished with a dark triangle surrounded by dirty white feathers. In adults, even in plain plumage, the black breast patch stands out clearly against its snow-white background.

Young white wagtail
Young wagtails have less strongly contrasting plumage

What do pied wagtail nests and eggs look like?

Pied wagtails lay brown spotted eggs about 2 cm long and 1.5 cm wide. Females lay five or six eggs in a cup-shaped nest made of twigs, moss and other plant fibres, the hollow of which is padded with animal hair and feathers.

White wagtail eggs with brown spots in nest
The white wagtail’s eggs are laid in a soft nest [Photo: Jasiek03/ Shutterstock.com]

What does a pied wagtail’s habitat look like?

Wagtails love open spaces where they can hunt for insects on the ground. Sunny places where there is a lot of food are best. Pied wagtails are also often found near bodies of water, but nest-friendly structures such as embankments, small groups of trees and buildings are also important habitats.

Where does the wagtail build its nest?

The pied wagtail builds its nest on steep banks, in tree hollows, cavities in buildings or open fields. Generally, they choose a place close to the ground to build their nests. The nests themselves are mainly built by the female, which takes about a week – the male only helps out from time to time. Well-built nests can be reused for several years. White wagtails often breed near humans and have already adopted many man-made structures to build their nests in.

White wagtail nest with babies on tractor
Wagtail nest on a tractor [Photo: Serhiy Kozodavov/ Shutterstock.com]

When is the wagtail breeding season?

The pied wagtail’s breeding season lasts 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 taking on most of the work. After hatching, the young birds are fed by both parents for a fortnight. They then fly the nest and are supported by their parents for just a few more days before they are on their own.

White wagtail parent feeding juvenile offspring
After leaving the nest, juvenile pied wagtails are only fed for a short time [Photo: Lukas Zdrazil/ Shutterstock.com]

Where does the pied wagtail spend the winter?

In the UK, pied wagtails are mostly considered resident birds, meaning they stay here over the winter months, but this is region specific. Some wagtails, like those in the northern regions and highlands of Scotland for instance, will migrate further south to Africa or to areas of the Mediterranean in winter. Adult males often establish and defend feeding territories, while young and female wagtails, on the other hand, travel in smaller groups and search together for food in the barren winter landscape.

How to support the pied wagtail in your garden

Open, wet meadows are becoming rarer and rarer as our countryside is becoming ever more intensively farmed. That is why wagtails are taking refuge in settlements, parks and gardens. Read on to find out how you can make the birds feel welcome in your garden.

What do wagtails eat?

Wagtails feed mainly on insects and spiders. Only very rarely do they eat berries or seeds. The hunters like to stalk through short grassy areas and catch small flying insects or other creepy-crawlies. If you have a garden with a lot of open space, you can offer the wagtails ideal hunting grounds. Avoid using chemical sprays in your garden, as these reduce insect numbers and can even poison birds through the food chain.

White wagtail eating insect by the water
Wagtails are insectivores

What nest boxes are suitable for white wagtails?

If you want to offer the wagtail a nesting box in your garden, you should use an “open-fronted” box. Compared to classic bird boxes, these offer a much larger entrance opening.

Read our article on how to build your own nest box, for more information on where to hang it and how to clean it properly.

What else can you do to support the pied wagtail?

White wagtails depend on an abundant supply of insects, so having an insect-friendly garden can make a big difference. But, because wild areas are also extremely valuable in our countryside, please advocate for a more sustainable use of our landscape. Buying organic food, for example, can help with this. By buying organic products, you are supporting a more ecological and thus bird-friendly management of the landscape.

Tip: providing a a small watering hole, such as a stream, small pond or a bird bath will score more points with the wagtails.

White wagtail bathing in water
Black and white wagtails love a bathing spot [Photo: goran_safarek/ Shutterstock.com]

Lots of other garden birds also enjoy bathing on hot days. Take a look at our articles on the house martin, yellowhammer and more.