7 pied wagtail facts you need to know

Discover 7 fascinating facts about the BTO November Garden Bird of the Month. 

Pied wagtail
© Liz Cutting/BTO


1 Fitting name

With its black, white and grey plumage, and a long tail that is constantly wagging, the pied wagtail is aptly named. It is a subspecies of the white wagtail, found in mainland Europe.

2 Resourceful insectivores

Pied wagtails are insectivores, feeding on both ground and aerial invertebrates. Commonly seen on pavements and rooftops, they have been known to search for easy pickings, such as insects in a car radiator grill. In the autumn and winter, when insects are scarce, pied wagtails will come into gardens to feed on seeds and bread.

3 Winter territories

In the coldest season, adult males have feeding territories. When food is scarce they will defend them vigorously and chase off any intruders. However, if there is plenty of food around, they will let females and first-winter males, but not other adult males, forage nearby. Most of the time, females and first-winter males feed together in flocks.

4 Escaping the elements

Most pied wagtails in the UK are resident, but in the winter, pied wagtails that occupy northern upland areas will vacate them and move south. They can migrate as far south as North Africa to escape the cold. Elsewhere in the UK, winter densities are highest in valleys, floodplains and along the south coast.

5 Big congregation

During the winter, pied wagtails form large roosts at night to keep warm. There is safety in numbers and there have been roosts as large as 4000 individuals recorded. In the countryside, the birds will often roost in reed beds where they are safe from predators. 

Adult pied wagtail with a begging fledgling. © Liz Cutting/BTO

6 Unusual nest sites

Pied wagtails will nest in tree hollows and log piles but prefer to nest in holes. They have been known to nest in abandoned machinery, cars, greenhouses, and in one particular case, the barrel of an 1894 battle cruiser gun.

7 Declining numbers

Sadly between 1995 and 2010, there was an 11 per cent decline in pied wagtail numbers. A rapid decrease in numbers has been seen along rivers and canals suggesting there is a link with the state of our waterways, though the decrease in invertebrate availability might also play a role. 

The British Trust of Ornithology (BTO) works in partnership with over 40,000 volunteer birdwatchers to chart the fortunes of UK birds.

Among the surveys that we coordinate is our popular Garden BirdWatch, the largest year-round survey of garden birds in the world.

Each month we highlight a bird for you to look out for in your garden.

For more information about Garden BirdWatch or to speak to the Garden Ecology Team please email gbw@bto.org


Read previous BTO Garden Bird of the Month blogs.

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