Yellow wagtail (Motacilla flava)

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
GenusMotacilla (1)
SizeLength: 16.5 cm (2)
Male weight: 12.3 - 26.4 g (2)
Female weight: 11.2 - 22.6 g (2)

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

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).

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).

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).

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).

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

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  1. IUCN Red List (February, 2011)
  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)
  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)
  6. BirdLife International (February, 2011)
  7. Burfield, I. and van Bommel, F. (2004) Birds in Europe: Population Estimates, Trends and Conservation Status. BirdLife International, Cambridge, UK.