GREY WAGTAIL (Motacilla cinerea)


This resident of upland, fast-flowing rivers can now be seen throughout summer across the UK. In winter they move to lowland areas and can be seen around farmland, cities, and lowland lakes and rivers. While they are seen in cities they rely heavily on nearby areas of clean water to feed and nest. As with other wagtail species, they are well known for wagging their tail up and down, flashing their bright yellow undertail.

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Alert Status:

Amber - 7% decline ↓

Estimated number of UK breeding

pairs: 37,000 (updated 2016)

Listen to Grey Wagtail song:


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

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Grey wagtail diet

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.

Grey wagtail breeding and nesting information

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.

Threats to grey wagtails

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.

How you can help

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.

Fascinating Fact

Wagtails and dippers nest in such similar habitats that there are records of adult grey wagtails feeding dipper chicks. ​ ​
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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.

BirdLife International (2023) Species factsheet: Motacilla cinerea. Downloaded from Accessed: 28/08/2023.

British Trust for Ornithology (2015) Grey Wagtail, BTO - British Trust for Ornithology. Available at: 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. Accessed: 28/08/2023

Svensson., L (2020) Collins Bird Guide 2nd Edn, Willian Collins ,Great Britain. P 270.

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