Wagtails

This past few weeks we’ve been adopted by a group of pied wagtails. Its one of those species that, to be honest, I’ve never really looked at closely, one of those birds that’s dismissed as soon as its named (“oh, a pied wagtail, what’s next…”). But, with them scurrying about along the garden path, its been good to pay them some attention.

As their name suggests (the “pied” bit) they’re black and white and grey, but between individuals there’s a lot of variation. We’ve one bird whose back is almost black, but spotted with slightly lighter patches. I presume this is a male starting to come into breeding plumage. Then there’s the other birds who’s backs are various shades light grey, which I presume are females or first winter males.  They all have slightly varying amounts of white around the forehead, contrasting with a dark crown and a lovely crescent shaped patch of black on the upper chest which, as the season progresses, will spread to cover their chins.

And then there’s the tail wagging, the other bit of their name. Of course, strictly, its not wagging at all as “wagging” suggests a side to side movement. Bobbing would be a better description, but I doubt  “pied bobtail” would catch on. And what’s it for, why all this bobbing? It appears, as with many common behaviours, nobody really knows.

One common explanation is that its for flushing insects off the ground. Another is to do with predators. If you watch them, wagtails frequently bob their tails more when they first land and, as is suggested, this might act to draw attention to themselves when they are at their most alert (ie not with their heads down searching for insects) and attract any attacks when they are most likely to be able to escape, if you follow my drift. This doesn’t of course explain why they wag their tails almost constantly.

A third explanation is that its a behaviour left over from a time when they lived primarily by streams and rivers, like their relatives the grey wagtails, and that the bobbing was good for breaking up their outline against running water. A fourth explanation, and a very plausible one, is that its simply a visual means of communication between individuals, either to maintain togetherness in a flock, or aggressively in territorial disputes. This is useful in noisy environments, such as by running water, when calls cannot be relied on.

A final explanation is that they wag their tails because they are happy. Which is a nice thought, but dubious biologically! Indeed, our male appears irritated much of the time, often scrapping with the other wagtails that get too close.  Its known that they are fiercly territorial over food, but studies into this behaviour show that wagtails will also sometimes tolerate a few others around because they help keep other wagtails away. However, its always a trade off, and if the others start to compete a little too much, squabbling happens and the dominant bird chases the others off, as dominate birds do.Pied wagtail in garden January 2009

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  • About

    In this blog we'll describe the day to day comings and goings of the birds in our Devon garden.
  • About us

    Tony is a naturalist and environmental artist. Laura is a free range creative web and print designer. We've recently moved from the village of Ipplepen to the town of Newton Abbot with our two children Ralph and Oli, our dog Henry, and numerous cats (none of whom would ever dream of eating birds).
  • Species List

    List of species, including only those birds that land in the garden:
    Blackbird
    Blackcap
    Blue tit
    Brambling
    Bullfinch
    Carrion Crow
    Chaffinch
    Chiff chaff
    Coal tit
    Collared dove
    Dunnock
    Fieldfare
    Goldcrest
    Goldfinch
    Great spotted woodpecker
    Great tit
    Greenfinch
    House Sparrow
    Jay
    Long tailed tit
    Magpie
    Mistle thrush
    Nuthatch
    Pied wagtail
    Redwing
    Robin
    Siskin
    Song thrush
    Sparrowhawk
    Starling
    Wood pigeon
    Wren

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