Yellow wagtail (Motacilla flava)

loading
Yellow wagtail (M. f. flavissima) male at waters edge
loading
Loading more images and videos...

Yellow wagtail fact file

Yellow wagtail description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyMotacillidae
GenusMotacilla (1)

The yellow wagtail (Motacilla flava) is a slender, long-tailed, long-legged bird most often seen walking on the ground near water courses with the tail wagging fervently. This attractive bird has been the subject of much debate due to its complex taxonomy. It varies hugely in appearance across its large range, with some authorities considering many of the subspecies separate species (2)

In general, the yellow wagtail is a graceful yellow and green bird, with a greyish to black bill and slate-grey to black legs (2) (3). The breeding male has yellow underparts and a green back, with two yellow-white bars on the coverts of the almost black wings. Outside of the breeding season, both the male and female are duller, with a brown back and paler yellow underparts. The juvenile resembles the female, but has distinctive buff on the throat and a brownish breast-bib, as well as pale yellow marks on the head (4)

The different subspecies of the yellow wagtail are best distinguished by the male head patterns (4). Motacilla flava flava, for example, which occurs in north and central Europe, has a blue-grey forehead, dark ear-coverts, a long, narrow, white stripe from the bill to the side of the head, and a dark eye stripe (2). The different subspecies may be further distinguished by subtle differences in their calls and songs, with the commonest song being a simple, repeated “tsip-tsip-tsipsi”, and the most frequently heard calls being a loud musical “tsweep” and a more grating “tsir(4)

The yellow wagtail is easily mistaken for the similar grey wagtail (Motacilla cinerea). 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 during flight (4).

Also known as
Alaska yellow wagtail, Alaska yellow-wagtail, black-headed wagtail, blue-headed wagtail, blue-headed yellow wagtail, British yellow-wagtail, dark-headed wagtail, Eastern yellow wagtail, gray-headed wagtail, green-crowned wagtail, grey-headed wagtail, Kurile yellow-wagtail, Siberian yellow wagtail, Siberian yellow-wagtail, Western yellow wagtail, yellow-browed wagtail.
Synonyms
Motacilla cinereocapilla, Motacilla feldegg, Motacilla flavissima, Motacilla iberiae, Motacilla leucocephala, Motacilla lutea, Motacilla simillima, Motacilla taivana, Motacilla thunbergi.
French
Bergeronnette printanière.
Size
Length: 16.5 cm (2)
Male weight: 12.3 - 26.4 g (2)
Female weight: 11.2 - 22.6 g (2)
Top

Yellow wagtail biology

A gregarious species that forms large overnight roosts in trees, swamps and tall grass, during the day the yellow wagtail defends a small feeding territory from other individuals. It picks small invertebrates from the ground or water surface, but may also make short flights to take prey from the air or follow grazing livestock to take insects stirred up as they feed (2) (5)

The yellow wagtail breeds between April and August, but the exact timing of breeding varyies with location. It is monogamous, nesting in solitary pairs which cooperate to defend a territory around the nesting site. The nest is a simple grassy cup lined with hair that is built by the female and placed on the ground in a shallow scrape. Between 4 and 6 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 14 days that they are in the nest and for several weeks after fledging (2).

Top

Yellow wagtail range

An extremely widespread species, the yellow wagtail occurs across Europe, Africa and Asia, to Alaska and northern Australia. A migratory species, its breeds at northern latitudes and travels southwards before the onset of winter. In general, those populations breeding in western Europe winter in northwest and sub-Saharan Africa, eastern European breeding populations winter in northeast Africa and West Asia, while breeding populations in central, north and east Asia and Alaska winter in the Indian Subcontinent, southeast Asia or northern Australia (2).

Top

Yellow wagtail habitat

The yellow wagtail occurs in a variety of damp or wet habitats with low vegetation, from rushy pastures, meadows, hay fields and marshes to damp steppe and grassy tundra. Outside of the breeding season it is also found in cultivated areas. The yellow wagtail typically forages in damp grassland and on relatively bare open ground at edges of rivers, lakes and wetlands, but also feeds in dry grassland and in fields of cereal crops (2).

Top

Yellow wagtail status

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

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern

Top

Yellow wagtail threats

The yellow wagtail is an extremely widespread species with a huge global population. The population in Europe alone, which comprises less than half of its breeding range, was estimated at over 7 million pairs in 2004. However, the yellow wagtail has been in decline since the 1980s, most likely due to the conversion and drainage of breeding and foraging habitat for agriculture. Declines have been observed in numerous European countries, although populations have increased in other countries, meaning the overall global population is only in a moderate decline (6) (7).

Top

Yellow wagtail conservation

In the absence of any major threats to the yellow wagtail, it has not been the target of any known specific conservation measures (6).

ARKive is supported by OTEP, a joint programme of funding from the UK FCO and DFID which provides support to address priority environmental issues in the Overseas Territories, and Defra
Top

Find out more

More about bird conservation:

More information on the yellow wagtail and other bird species:

Top

Authentication

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:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

Top

Glossary

Coverts
Small feathers concealing the bases of larger flight feathers, usually on the wings or tail.
Incubate
To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
Invertebrates
Animals with no backbone, such as insects, crustaceans, worms and spiders.
Monogamous
Having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
Steppe
Natural, semi-arid grassland with low rainfall and few trees.
Subspecies
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
Taxonomy
The science of classifying organisms, grouping together animals which share common features and are thought to have a common ancestor.
Territory
An area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a colony.
Tundra
Treeless, grassy plains characteristic of arctic and sub-arctic regions. They are very cold and have little rainfall.
Top

References

  1. IUCN Red List (February, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  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. RSPB - Yellow wagtail (February, 2011)
    http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/y/yellowwagtail/index.aspx
  4. Peterson, R.T., Mountfort, G. and Hollom, P.A.D. (1993) Collins Field Guide: Birds of Britain and Europe. Harper Collins Publishers, London.
  5. Kenya Birds - Yellow wagtail (February, 2011)
    http://www.kenyabirds.org.uk/wag-y.htm
  6. BirdLife International (February, 2011)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=8411
  7. Burfield, I. and van Bommel, F. (2004) Birds in Europe: Population Estimates, Trends and Conservation Status. BirdLife International, Cambridge, UK.
X
Close

Image credit

Yellow wagtail (M. f. flavissima) male at waters edge  
Yellow wagtail (M. f. flavissima) male at waters edge

© Robin Chittenden / naturepl.com

Nature Picture Library
5a Great George Street
Bristol
BS1 5RR
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0) 117 911 4675
Fax: +44 (0) 117 911 4699
info@naturepl.com
http://www.naturepl.com

X
Close

Link to this photo

ARKive species - Yellow wagtail (Motacilla flava) Embed this ARKive thumbnail link ("portlet") by copying and pasting the code below.

Terms of Use - The displayed portlet may be used as a link from your website to ARKive's online content for private, scientific, conservation or educational purposes only. It may NOT be used within Apps.

Read more about

X
Close

MyARKive

MyARKive offers the scrapbook feature to signed-up members, allowing you to organize your favourite ARKive images and videos and share them with friends.

Play the Team WILD game:

Team WILD, an elite squadron of science superheroes, needs your help! Your mission: protect and conserve the planet’s species and habitats from destruction.

Conservation in Action

Which species are on the road to recovery? Find out now »

This species is featured in:

Help us share the wonders of the natural world. Donate today!

Blog