Citrine wagtail (Motacilla citreola)

Also known as: citine wagtail, yellow-headed wagtail, yellow-hooded wagtail
French: Bergeronnette citrine
GenusMotacilla (1)
SizeLength: 16.5 - 20 cm (2)
Weight18 - 25 g (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The wagtails are some of the best-recognised and most familiar of birds, so named for their conspicuous habit of wagging the long tail while walking or running briskly along the ground (3) (4). During the breeding season, the male citrine wagtail is easily identified by its striking bright yellow head and underparts, black hind-neck collar and two bold white patches on the wing-coverts (3). The upperparts are dark slate-grey, with a wash of olive-grey on the sides of the body, and often blackish spots on the breast. The upper-tail is black, and the bill and legs are blackish-brown. At other times of the year, the male bird becomes paler in colour, and more similar in appearance to the duller female. The juvenile has little or no yellow plumage, with olive-brown on the breast and sides of the body (2).

The citrine wagtail breeds at northern latitudes, from central and eastern Europe, through central Asia to north-west China. Before the onset of the colder winter months, it migrates southwards to the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia (2).

The citrine wagtail typically inhabits open country near water and bushes (2) (3). It favours marshes, the edge of lakes, wet grassland, and areas of willow bushes in mountain meadows or, occasionally, fields near villages. Outside of the breeding season, it also occupies coastal marshes, brackish lagoons and river sandbars, and artificial environments such as sewage farms and irrigated land. It occurs at altitudes of up to 4,600 metres (2).

Darting amongst low vegetation, the citrine wagtail forages for a variety of insect prey. Typically it walks along the water’s edge, picking prey off the low vegetation, but it may also wade into shallow water to consume insects floating on the water surface (2) (4). 

The timing of breeding varies across the species’ range, but it generally breeds between April and June. Breeding pairs are monogamous and highly territorial, and the breeding territory is used for both nesting and feeding. Both birds defend this area with defence flights and by frequently calling from perches around the territory boundary (2) (4). The female bird builds a fairly open, cup-shaped nest out of moss and plant material and lines it with hair, wool and feathers (2). It is placed on the ground, usually under a tussock of grass or a bush, and while the female builds the nest, the male brings nest material and closely guards the female (4) (5). A clutch of 3 to 6 eggs is laid and incubated for 14 to 15 days by both adult birds. The chicks remain in the nest for 10 to 13 days before fledging (2). 

To avoid unfavourable weather conditions, before the onset of winter the citrine wagtail migrates southwards to the tropical Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Typically it leaves the northern breeding grounds between August and October, arriving back at these sites from March the next year. Whilst migrating, it travels in large flocks and may gather in communal roosts with other species of wagtail (2).

The citrine wagtail is thought to have a very large global population, with over 200,000 breeding pairs estimated to be residing in the European part of its range alone in 1994 (6), while there is thought to be an even larger population in the tundra belt of northern Russia (7). It has also recently begun expanding its breeding range into parts of Europe where it was formerly just a visitor. It has been observed, however, that the citrine wagtail is less common in the more southern parts of its range (2).

In the absence of any major threats to the citrine wagtail, it is not known to be the target of any specific conservation measures (7).

To find out more about the conservation of birds, see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2010)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (2004) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 9: Cotingas to Pipits and Wagtails. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Peterson, R.T., Mountfort, G. and Hollom, P.A.D. (1993) Collins Field Guide - Birds of Britain and Europe. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, London.
  4. Perrins, C. (2009) The Encyclopedia of Birds. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  5. Birds of Kazakhstan (September, 2010)
  6. Burfield, I. and van Bommel, F. (2004) Birds in Europe: Population Estimates, Trends and Conservation Status. BirdLife International, Cambridge, UK.
  7. BirdLife International (September, 2010)