Willie wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys)

Also known as: black-and-white fantail, black-and-white flycatcher, pied fantail, white-browed fantail, willie-wagtail
Synonyms: Turdus leucophrys
GenusRhipidura (1)
SizeLength: 18 - 22 cm (2)
Weight17 - 25 g (3)
Top facts

The willie wagtail is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

One of Australia’s most familiar birds (4), the willie wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys) is a relatively small, slender bird with a long tail which is characteristically wagged from side to side as the bird forages (4) (5) (6) (7) (8). However, despite its name the willie wagtail is unrelated to the wagtails (Motacilla species) of Europe and Asia, instead belonging to the fantail family (Rhipiduridae) (4). It is one of the largest and most well-known fantail species in Australia (2) (6).

Both the male and female willie wagtail are black above and white below, with a white line above the eye and a black tail (2) (3) (4) (5) (6). The throat and upper chest are also black, with variable amounts of white on the tips of the feathers (2) (3) (5) (6). The willie wagtail has dark brown eyes, black legs and a black beak (3), which is relatively short (4). Juvenile willie wagtails are duller in appearance than the adults, with browner plumage, reddish-buff feather tips on the wings and upperparts, and a reddish-brown tinge to the line above the eye (2) (3) (5) (6).

Three subspecies of willie wagtail are recognised: Rhipidura leucophrys leucophrys, Rhipidura leucophrys melaleuca and Rhipidura leucophrys picata. These differ in size, with R. l. picata being smallest and R. l. melaleuca largest, with a larger beak (3).

The willie wagtail’s song is made by both the male and female and is often given constantly throughout the night, as well as during the day (2) (3) (6). A loud and far-carrying tune (3), it consists of a series of around four to seven squeaky notes and is described as sounding like ‘sweet-pretty-creature’ or ‘pretty-little-creature’ (2) (3) (5) (6). In New Guinea, this species’ song is jerkier, with a slightly different rhythm (3). The willie wagtail also uses a range of scolding and chattering calls (2) (3) (6).

The willie wagtail occurs across Australia, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, the Bismarck Archipelago, the Moluccas, and on other surrounding islands (2) (3) (5) (9). It is absent from Tasmania (2).

Two subspecies of the willie wagtail, R. l. leucophrys and R. l. picata, are found in Australia, while R. l. melaleuca occurs in New Guinea and surrounding islands (3) (5).

The willie wagtail is found in a wide range of open habitats, particularly open forest and woodland, as well as open savanna, mangroves, coastal areas, plantations, swamps, water-courses, wetlands, and urban parks and gardens (2) (3) (4) (5) (6). It tends to avoid dense, closed forest and rainforest (2) (3) (4).

The willie wagtail feeds on a variety of insects and their larvae (2) (3) (4) (6), as well as occasionally taking spiders, small fish, worms, lizards and grass seeds (3). An active feeder, it can often be seen darting about as it hunts for prey on the ground. This species also takes insects in the air, often after an acrobatic chase (2) (3) (4) (6), and sometimes follows large animals or even mowers and tractors to catch the insects they disturb (2) (3) (6) (8). The willie wagtail is quite a tame and fearless bird, and often forages close to humans (2) (3) (4) (6), as well as taking insects attracted to street lights or disturbed by passing cars (3).

The characteristic tail-wagging of the willie wagtail is often accompanied by brief flashes of the wings, and both behaviours are thought to be used to flush out insect prey by startling it into flight (3) (5) (7) (8). The willie wagtail is usually seen alone or in pairs, but it may form flocks in winter, often foraging with other bird species (2) (3) (5) (6).

The breeding season of the willie wagtail varies with location, usually occurring between August and January or February in Australia (2) (3) (6), or in any month if conditions are favourable (3) (6). Three or even four broods of chicks can sometimes be raised in a single season (2) (3) (6). The willie wagtail is monogamous (3), and breeding pairs can be aggressive in defending their territory, even chasing away larger animals (3) (6), including humans (3).

Both the male and female willie wagtail help to build the nest, which consists of a neat, rounded cup of fine dry grasses, bark shreds and other plant material, sometimes with animal hair or feathers. The nest is coated in cobwebs and is lined with hair, grass or other fibres (2) (3) (6). Most Rhipidura species build nests that have a wineglass shape, with a hanging ‘tail’ of material below. The willie wagtail is unusual in building a tailless, cup-shaped nest, which may allow it to use a wider variety of nest sites (8), including the horizontal forks of branches, or artificial structures such as fence posts or rafters (3). The nest of this species may be reused over successive years (2) (3) (6).

The willie wagtail usually lays a clutch of three to four eggs, which are white to cream, buff or greyish, and are spotted and blotched with grey or brown. The eggs are incubated by both sexes, and typically hatch after about 14 days (2) (3) (6). The young willie wagtails leave the nest at 11 to 17 days old (3), after which they remain with the adults until the eggs from the next clutch start to hatch (2) (6).

The nests of the willie wagtail are often parasitised by various cuckoo species, and its eggs and chicks can also be lost to predators such as birds, rats and cats (3). However, individuals that survive can potentially live for up to 15 years (6).

A common and widespread species, the willie wagtail is not currently believed to be at risk of extinction (9), and its population is thought to be increasing in areas where vegetation clearance has created more suitable foraging habitat (3).

However, despite its success the willie wagtail may have declined locally in parts of Australia, particularly around urban areas. It is often preyed on by cats, and its nesting success may be decreasing due to increased numbers of predatory birds (3) (6). Chemicals sprayed to kill insect pests are also thought to harm this small bird (6).

No specific conservation measures are currently known to be in place for the willie wagtail.

Find out more about the willie wagtail and its conservation:

More information on conservation in Australia:

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 (April, 2013)
  2. Birds in Backyards - Willie wagtail (April, 2013)
  3. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Christie, D. (2006) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 11: Old World Flycatchers to Old World Warblers. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  4. BirdLife International (2011) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Birds. Dorling Kindersley Limited, London.
  5. Dutson, G. (2011) Birds of Melanesia: Bismarcks, Solomons, Vanuatu and New Caledonia. Christopher Helm, London.
  6. Daniels, C.B. (2011) A Guide to Urban Wildlife: 250 Creatures You Meet on Your Street. ABC Books, Pymble, New South Wales.
  7. Jackson, J. and Elgar, M.A. (1992) The foraging behaviour of the willie wagtail Rhipidura leucophrys: why does it wag its tail? Emu, 93: 284-286.
  8. Harrison, C.J.O. (1976) Some aspects of adaptation and evolution in Australian fan-tailed flycatchers. Emu, 76(3): 115-119.
  9. BirdLife International - Willie wagtail (April, 2013)