Wagging its long tail at an almost incessant rate whilst walking or running briskly along the ground, the grey wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) is a conspicuous inhabitant of freshwater systems across much of Europe and Asia (4)(5). More colourful than its drab name suggests, the grey wagtail has a pale blue-grey back that contrasts sharply with lemon yellow underparts (6). The rump is greenish-yellow, the tail is black with white edges and there is a whitish eye stripe. The bill is black and the legs are dark brown to purplish-brown. During the breeding season, the male grey wagtail develops a bold face pattern with white stripes and a jet-black bib. The female differs in having a mottled buffy-white chin and throat and paler yellow underparts. The juvenile grey wagtail is similar to the adult female, but with buffy underparts (2)(5).
The grey wagtail is easily mistaken for the similar yellow wagtail (Motacilla flava). However, the grey wagtail is slenderer with a much longer, more black and white tail, as well as a broad pale wing bar that is most visible when it is in flight (7).
Also known as
European gray wagtail, European grey wagtail, gray wagtail.
The grey wagtail feeds mainly on a variety of insects (7). Its prey is usually caught from shallow water or on the ground while walking or running, or occasionally after sallies into the air from a perch hanging over water (2). Whilst feeding, the grey wagtail fervently wags its long tail in a territorial display to other wagtails that a particular stretch of water is occupied (7).
In Europe, the grey wagtail breeds from the end of March to August, with most birds breeding from April onwards. At this time it is highly territorial and defends a stretch of water near to its nest that may measure as long as 1,000 metres. A monogamous species, pair bonds are formed with male courtship displays involving a parachuting flight, in which the male descends from a tree with the wings lowered and spread, tail depressed and the yellow rump feathers puffed, singing continuously until it reaches the ground. The cup-shaped nest is built by both the male and female grey wagtail, and placed on a rock ledge, in a crevice in a river bank, or often on a ledge in a wall, under a bridge or in a drainpipe. Three to seven eggs are laid, and are incubated by both adults for 11 to 13 days. The chicks are fed by both adults for the 11 to 13 days that they are in the nest and for 2 to 3 weeks after they fledge. Often the male grey wagtail cares for the fledglings alone, as the female may lay a second clutch (2).
A widespread species, the grey wagtail is found across much of northern Africa, Europe and Asia, ranging from western Europe to the Far East. Some populations are migratory and travel southwards after the breeding season, such as those populations breeding in central and northern Asia, which winter in north and north-eastern Africa (2).
The grey wagtail is found around fast-flowing mountain streams, often in forested areas, as well as lowland watercourses such as canals and rivers. Outside of the breeding season it is found in a greater variety of habitats, including farmlands, forested tracks, plantations and even town centres (2)(6)(7).
A wide-ranging and common species, the grey wagtail is not currently considered at risk of extinction. Its range has gradually increased over the past 150 years, as it has taken advantage of artificial wetlands for feeding, and buildings and bridges for nesting (2). In Europe, which comprises around a quarter of its global breeding range, the population was estimated at around 740,000 breeding pairs in 1994, and its populations there are thought to be largely stable or slightly increasing (8). However, local populations are vulnerable to extreme weather and can decline rapidly after prolonged periods of severe cold weather (2)(6).
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