There are three different wagtails in the UK: the most common pied wagtails, grey wagtails and, a summer migrant, yellow wagtails. All three species can show yellow at some stage and grey wagtails are the only ones to have any yellow feathers all year round.
In our ID guide to UK wagtails, here’s some tips to identifying these three energetic birds:
As a family, wagtails are fairly easy to identify with long tails which, true to their name, they constantly bob up and down. So what’s the easiest way to tell them apart?
They’re instantly recognisable with long tails that always seem to be on the move. When in their undulating flight, they call frequently with an explosive, high-pitched ‘chi-sik’ sound.
Pied wagtails are passerine (perching) birds, which means their feet are adapted for perching on trees or on the ground, rather than for wading or swimming. The adult male has a jet-black back, head and breast in summer, with white on its cheeks, forehead and underneath. Females have a similar pattern but are greyer, rather than black, on their back.⠀
So why does a wagtail wag its tail? There’s a few theories. It’s most likely something they do for social signalling, although some have suggested it could be a way of flushing out insect prey or even a way to signal alertness and vigilance to predators.⠀
It’s a bird that has many names in folklore, including “willie wagtail” and “peggy dishwasher.” Their association with washing may be because they’re so often found around rivers and streams where people would originally have washed pots and pans, and possibly because their white and black plumage was said to resemble a maid’s apron. In Ancient Greece, they were a symbol of love and a gift from the Goddess Aphrodite.
Yellow wagtails are the only one of the UK’s three wagtail species that aren’t with us year round and, when they’re in this country, they’re mostly found in central and eastern England rather than on the south coast. Most that are seen around the Solent are passage migrants, on their way further north or south during spring and autumn migrations.
Yellow wagtails are less long tailed than the familiar pied wagtails, with olive green plumage above and yellow below, and a yellow face with dark or black legs. They often stand a bit taller than the similarly sized grey wagtail – a bit more like a pipit. Males are a brighter yellow than females, especially during the breeding season.
Since these colours will vary depending on whether the bird is a male or female, whether it’s a young bird, or the time of year, it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the differing wagtail calls. Yellow wagtails have a sweet call which sounds like ‘tsee’ or ‘se-ip’.
Yellow wagtail are red listed in the UK for conservation concern.
Grey wagtails are more long tailed than pied wagtails. If there was a prize for the most unsuitable British bird name, they’d be a clear winner since they have vivid yellow undertails and a yellow belly.
Unlike yellow wagtails, they have grey backs and black wings with brown or flesh-coloured legs. Adult males and most adult females have dark throats in the breeding season. Since these colours will vary depending on whether the bird is a male or female, whether it’s a young bird, or the time of year, it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the differing wagtail calls. Grey wagtails have a sweet call have an explosive call, sounding like ‘tsvit’ or ‘tzeet-tzeet’.
Similarly to pied wagtails, they’re usually found near flowing water. They are amber listed in the UK for conservation concern.