During the breeding season, males have grey upperparts, a yellow rump, and black wings with white streaks. They have a black tail with white streaks which is noticeably longer than that of its close relative the yellow wagtail. They have a bright yellow breast and undertail. The head is mostly grey with a white/yellow eyebrow, a black bill, and a black bib. Outside of the breeding season, the yellow colours are lighter. Females look very similar, but their bib is a more mottled black.
Average Length: 18 - 19 cm
Average Lifespan: 7 Years
Average Wingspan: 25 - 27 cm
Grey wagtails eat insects that they can catch near the water sources where they breed but will also eat spiders and small crustaceans. During winter they may be seen in your garden if you live near a healthy water source. Creating an insect-friendly garden and providing fresh water during the winter may attract them to feed.
The grey wagtail breeding season begins in March and ends in August. They are monogamous and both the male and female contribute to building a cup-shaped nest out of coarse material which is then lined with fine grass and hair. The nests are usually found on rock ledges or crevices along river banks, however, they do sometimes nest in human-made structures such as drainpipes or bridges. In the nest, the female can lay between 3 and 7 eggs which are incubated by the female alone. Once they hatch after around 2 weeks, both the male and female will feed them for 11-13 days before they fledge.
While the population of Grey wagtails has not reduced over the last 25 years they are not showing any signs of population increases. As with other birds that rely on river bank habitats, the loss and reduction in quality of these habitats may threaten the grey wagtail. However, it has been that the quality of the water has not severely impacted the population. They are very vulnerable to severe winters so increasingly unpredictable weather may drive short-term but significant population declines.
Help your local river trust to clean your local river, to keep them in tip-top shape for the wildlife
Report any instances of river pollution to either the canal and river trust or the environment agency
Provide food by creating an insect-friendly garden and clean water throughout winter to help reduce winter population declines.
Wagtails and dippers nest in such similar habitats that there are records of adult grey wagtails feeding dipper chicks.
Belkacem, R., Bougaham, A. F., Gagaoua, M., & Moulaï, R. (2019). Food profile of Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea during an annual cycle in the Algerian Babors Mountains of North Africa. Ostrich, 90(1), 45–52. https://doi.org/10.2989/00306525.2018.1543214
BirdLife International (2023) Species factsheet: Motacilla cinerea. Downloaded from http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/grey-wagtail-motacilla-cinerea Accessed: 28/08/2023.
British Trust for Ornithology (2015) Grey Wagtail, BTO - British Trust for Ornithology. Available at: https://www.bto.org/understanding-birds/birdfacts/grey-wagtail. Accessed: 28/08/2023.
Ormerod, S.J. & Tyler, S.J. (1990) Environmental pollutants in the eggs of Welsh Dippers Cinclus cinclus: a potential monitor of organochlorine and mercury contamination in upland rivers. Bird Study 37: 171–176
RSPB. (n.d.). Grey wagtail Bird Facts-Motacilla Cinerea. The RSPB. https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/grey-wagtail/ Accessed: 28/08/2023
Svensson., L (2020) Collins Bird Guide 2nd Edn, Willian Collins ,Great Britain. P 270.