Yellow Wagtail

In Ancient Egypt, the Yellow Wagtail was considered a representation of Atum himself and it might have been the inspiration for the Bennu bird, which, in turn, is supposed to have inspired the phoenix of Greek mythology, the bird that rose out of the fire. Not bad for a small bird wearing a high-vis jacket and sporting a fashionable waggy tail.

The Yellow Wagtail is smaller and sleeker than the Pied Wagtail and is very, very yellow. The male has yellow under parts, a yellow head, and a yellow green back. No other bird is so yellow and without streaks. It has the shortest waggy tail of all the wagtails, but can still do a good wag. There are two white wing bars, and the tail has white sides. The female and youngsters are similar to the male but slightly paler.

The Yellow Wagtail likes lowland pastures, water meadows, marshes, riversides, and arable fields, like the ones found in central and eastern England. It is a real fenland bird at heart. It hangs around with cows and other large animals in search of food, spending much of the time running about on the ground, chasing insects disturbed by their feet, and trying not to get squashed. There is nothing better than a big fat cowpat for takeaway insects.

They fly in long undulating curves or perch on posts and wires, waving their tails to attract attention as if being vibrant yellow wasn't enough. The Yellow Wagtail gives a "Sweep" call that is very different from that of the grey or pied. It sings mainly from May to July.

They build a cup-shaped nest in a tussock close to the ground. It is made of grass lined with wool or fur. The 4-8 speckled eggs are laid in April. Both parents incubate the eggs, which hatch after 12 days. The youngsters fly after 16 days but will hang around with mum and dad for several weeks. The family may even migrate together. It is pretty hard to give the kids the slip when you are high-viz.

The Yellow Wagtail is a summer visitor with the males arriving first in late March. They are fairly scarce with about 50,000 territories in Britain. Recent declines in breeding numbers have placed the Yellow Wagtail on the Red List of birds of conservation concern. This is thought to be because of changes in land use and agricultural practices, though being bright yellow doesn't make it easy to hide from predators like Mr Sparrowhawk. Come October, they migrate in flocks back to West Africa for their annual winter holiday in the sun.

The Yellow Wagtail looks slightly different depending on where in Europe it breeds, There are eight different subspecies with variations in the colour of the male's head. For example, in France and Germany, you will find the blue-headed wagtail; in Italy, the grey-headed wagtail; and in Finland, the ashy-headed wagtail. Their Latin name is 'motacilla flava' where 'motacilla', like the Pied Wagtail, means 'tail mover' and 'flava' is Latin for 'golden-yellow'.

Grey Wagtail

Another bird that wags its tail like mad. Its name is a little misleading as it looks more yellow than grey (but not to be confused with the Yellow Wagtail which is really yellow). It is usually seen singly or in pairs as it is a solitary little chap who likes the mountain streams, waterfalls, rock climbing, and the Sound of Music.

The Grey Wagtail is about the same size as the Pied Wagtail. The male has yellow under parts which are very bright so the mountain rescue teams can easily spot him. The upper parts are a blue grey with a white stripe above the eye and a black throat. The female has a pale throat and paler under parts. The Grey Wagtail has the longest tail of all the wagtails.

They have a low, bounding, deeply curved flight and perch on rocks or bushes. They do a distinctive song flight, where the male parachutes down from on high with open and fluttering wings. The Grey Wagtail sings mainly from March to May. The call is a reduced version of the Pied Wagtail's, lacking the "chis", and is only a very loud, piercingly sharp "tswick". This is because they need to be heard above the roaring noise of the water.

The Grey Wagtail eats insects, which it mainly picks up from the ground or from shallow water. They will even munch the odd tadpole or water snail on special occasions, like celebrating a good climb.

Nesting begins in April or May. The nest is built in a hole, crevice or other protected site such as under a bridge. Both parents build the nest using grass and twigs. The female then lines it with moss and hair. The 4-6 eggs hatch after 14 days. The young fly after another 14 days and depend on mum and dad for a further 14 days before going off to do their own tail wagging. The teenagers will sometimes come back to the nest to roost as there is no place like home and mum's cooking.

There are about 70,000 Grey Wagtails in Britain. They are found mainly in upland areas near fast flowing water where there are rocks and open ground. They have gradually increased their range in the past 150 years and have expanded into some lowland areas from the northern and western uplands. They are scarce in eastern England as they are not a big fan of the fens as there are no peaks to climb and a pylon is not the same thing. In winter, Grey Wagtails move down to a wide variety of lowland areas, and like the Pied Wagtail, can't resist a good sewage farm. Their numbers can fall in a harsh winter but they usually recover quickly.

Their Latin name is 'motacilla cinerea' where 'motacilla', like the Pied Wagtail, means 'tail mover 'and 'cincerea' is Latin for 'ash-grey' from 'cinis' meaning 'ashes'.

Pied Wagtail

Pied means two (or more) colours. The Pied Piper of Hamlin was dressed in multi-coloured clothes. This fellow is less extravagant and essentially just black and white - like a dinner suit. The Pied Wagtail is the car park bird as that is where you see them most (on the ground, not driving). They are slightly larger than a sparrow, though they often don't look it. The upper parts, rump, chest and throat are black with a white face. The under parts are white. They have a fine black bill, and rather spindly black legs. Their tail is black with fine white edges which they wag constantly up and down to show how proud of it they are. The female has a dark grey back. Pied Wagtails in Britain are slightly darker than those found in Europe.

They utter a very recognisable "Chis-ick" flight call while bounding along. They love the open bare ground found near water like rivers, canals, lakes, ponds, sewage farms (ugh), and at motorway service stations!

The Pied Wagtail runs or flies to catch insects, especially flies, midges, and caterpillars. They are more abundant in the north in the summer as there are far more juicy midges up there, the ones with the big teeth. In the winter, the male wagtail will defend their winter feeding territory and will feed on seeds and even rubbish to survive.

In April, Pied Wagtails build their nest in a hole or building crevice. The female finishes it off by lining it with hair, wool and feathers. She lays 3-8 eggs which hatch after 12 days having been kept warm by both proud parents. They then feed the young, which fly after 14 days. The youngsters hang around for a few more days, enjoying family food, before finally leaving. There may be two broods, especially in the warmer south.

The Pied Wagtail is found throughout the UK but is most abundant in the north and west where there are a lot more midges. There are about 600,000 birds in Britain. The Pied Wagtail varies from being a long distance migrant in the north to a resident in the south, the north becoming deserted in winter as it is a bit cold to be wandering around only wearing a smart dinner suit. When it gets cold, large numbers of wagtails gather in carparks, or on flat roofs in towns, to form a communal roost. Up to 3,000 can gather together, which is quite a sight.

Their Latin name is 'motacilla alba' where 'motacilla' means tail mover and 'alba' means white. The British Pied Wagtail is a subspecies of the European White Wagtail which looks almost identical except it has a pale grey back and rump.