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The Different Kinds of Wagtails Seen in Britain

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A Wagtail

Image source: Pixabay

Wagtails, their colouring and nesting places.

Wagtails can easily be recognised by the way they run along the ground, their heads nodding and their tails moving quickly up and down, and the constant tail wagging is where they get their name from. They are about the size of a sparrow but have longer legs and are more slender and dainty. When wagtails are flying they rise and swoop in long curves as they move through the air. Their nests are made of various plant and grass materials and lined with hair and feathers.

In Britain, we see several different kinds of wagtails with the commonest being the pied wagtail which is a black and white bird. In winter both male and female have a crescent-shaped black patch on the breast, black on the top of the head, a white throat and a grey back. In summer, however, the back and throat of the male become black. Its wings are black with a double white bar, those of the female being greyer.

Pied wagtails utter a sharp sound and also a twittering song. Except in the breeding season these birds will roost together in large numbers, sometimes in reed beds or on the roofs of buildings. Wagtails have been known to occasionally spend the night on a tree in the middle of a large town.

The wagtail is found all over Britain in a great variety of places, though mostly in open countryside. It nests in a hole in a wall, tree or river bank. The hen (the female) usually lays five of six eggs, which are greyish-white in colour, with greyish-brown spots.

The grey wagtail also nests all over the British Isles but is rather scarce in the south and east. It has grey upper parts, yellow under parts and a longer tail than the other species. Both male and female have white throats in winter, but in summer that of the male is black, bordered by a large white stripe. Grey wagtails are usually found near water and are particularly fond of fast-flowing streams and brooks. The nest is often near a stream and the eggs are lightly speckled with greyish-brown markings on a pale buff background.

The yellow wagtail also has yellow under parts, but its upper parts are greenish and it has a shorter tail. During the breeding season the male's head looks very yellow. The yellow wagtail is a summer visitor to the British Isles, spending the winter in Africa. It is mostly found in marshy meadows and cultivated felds in many parts of England, but is rare in Scotland and Wales. It builds its nest on the ground, among plants in fields or in a bank or wall.

The white wagtail, which is very like the pied wagtail but paler, has occasionally bred in Britain. It is generally only seen passing through on the way to other countries.

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