PIED WAGTAIL (Motacilla alba)


Pied wagtails are a common sight in the UK, with many finding their confident attitude and wagging tail to be endearing. They are widespread in the UK, and live in a variety of habitats, including urban areas. They prefer to be close to human habitation with access to a body of water. There are two subspecies of the pied wagtail, Motacilla alba yarrelli, is the subspecies you are likely familiar with, it resides across Britain and Ireland, whereas Motacilla alba alba is most commonly found across mainland Europe.

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Alert Status:

Green - 45% decrease ↓

Estimated number of UK breeding

pairs: 505,000 (updated 2016)

Listen to pied wagtail song:


Pied wagtails are sweet little birds which have a distinctive appearance, with a sleek body of grey, black and white, and their black and white constantly bobbing long tail.

Motacilla alba yarelli (the species most likely seen in Britain) adults have white chests, with dark grey and black feathers on their back with black legs, and a black pointed bill. Their breeding plumage is easily identified as they develop a clearly defined white panel across their black faces, with a black bib. When in their non-breeding plumage, females have a white throat, with a mottled white and black face. Females are generally lighter in colour, with a greyish back, rather than black.  

Juveniles have an almost yellowish-white tinge to the face, with grey plumage and black edges to their feathers.  

Motacilla alba alba however, has a light grey rump, pale white and grey flank with streaking or spots of grey occurring across their white underbelly.

Average Length: 16-19 cm

Average Lifespan: 2 Years

Average Wingspan: 25-30cm

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Pied Wagtail diet

Pied wagtails are insectivorous and do feed on insects even in the wintertime.

They feed on spiders, flies, beetles, and larvae, but will eat seeds and scraps if insects are in short supply.

You will often see them feeding on the ground, with their long tail bobbing behind them.

How to feed: Bird tables and ground feeders

What to feed: Mealworms, seeds, and scraps

Pied wagtail breeding and nesting information

Breeding season for pied wagtails takes place often between April and August, with a peak in May. Their nests are made from twigs and grass, lined with moss to cushion the inside. These nests are often associated with human habitation, being near buildings and farmland areas, not far away from a water source. They sometimes use the old nests of other bird species, especially blackbirds, rather than building their own.

Pied wagtails have 2 broods annually, each clutch containing 5-6 eggs that the female incubates for around 12-14 days. Occasionally males will incubate the eggs, with monogamous males spending more time incubating than those who have multiple females. These chicks will then fledge after another 2 weeks.

Threats to pied wagtails

Pied wagtails are currently categorised as of green status according the Birds of Conservation Concern.

There have been suggestions that climate change may possibly be playing a positive role in the long-term increases in this species.

How you can help

Supplementary feeding on the ground  

Leave old leaves, moss and twigs in your garden so that they can use them to build their nests

Put out one of our handy nesting holders to put feathers or wool in.

Fascinating Fact

Did you know that pied wagtails are very closely associated with sewage farms? Sewage farms are rife with insects and many insectivorous birds forage in these areas. One survey showed that starling and pied wagtails made up over 70% of the birds witnessed using the sewage works area.
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BirdLife International (2022) Species factsheet: Pied Wagtail Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 19/06/2022.  

Davies, N. B. (1976). Food, Flocking and Territorial Behaviour of the Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba yarrellii Gould) in Winter. Journal of Animal Ecology. 45(1): 235–253. https://doi.org/10.2307/3777  

Fitzpatrick, S. (1996) Male and female incubation in Pied Wagtails Motacilla alba: shared costs or increased parental care? Ornis Fennica. 73:88-96.  

Fuller, R.F., Glue, D.E. (1978) Seasonal activity of birds at a sewage works. British Birds. 71(6): 235-244.

Mason, C.F., Lyczynski, F. (1980) Breeding biology of the Pied and Yellow Wagtails. Bird Study. 27(1): 1-10.  

Pearce-Higgins, J.W., Crick, H.Q.P. (2019) One-third of English breeding bird species show evidence of population responses to climatic variables over 50 years. Bird Study. 66(2): 159-172.  

Robinson, R.A. (2005) BirdFacts: profiles of birds occurring in Britain & Ireland. BTO, Thetford (http://www.bto.org/birdfacts, accessed on 28 March 2022)  

Stanbury, A.J., Eaton, M.A., Aebischer, N.J., Balmer, D., Brown, A.F., Douse, A., Lindley, P., McCulloch, N., Noble, D.G., Win, I. (2021) The status of our bird populations: the fifth Birds of Conservation Concern in the United Kingdom, Channel Islands and Isle of Man and second IUCN Red List assessment of extinction risk for Great Britain. British Birds. 114

Woodward, I., Aebischer, N., Burnell,D., Eaton, M., Frost, T., Hall, C., Stroud, D. & Noble, D. (2020) Population estimates of birds in Great Britain and the United Kingdom. British Birds. 113: 69–104.

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