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Unveiling the Fascinating World of White Wagtail: Behavior Breeding and More

White Wagtail: Facts, Identification,

Molts and MoreThe White Wagtail, scientifically named Motacilla alba, is a small bird species that belongs to the family Motacillidae. It is a widespread species that occupies the whole of Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa.

In this article, well dive deep into this interesting bird species, learn about identification, plumages, molts, and more.


Field Identification

The White Wagtail is a small slender bird species with a distinctive tail wag. It measures about 6 to 7 inches in body length and weighs approximately 12 to 22 grams.

Its wingspan is about 9 to 11 inches, and its beak is small and thin. Its coloration depends on its habitat; the Black-backed and White Wagtails are most commonly found in cities and towns.

The Black-backed Wagtail has a blackhead, a white stripe on its forehead, and a black back, while the White Wagtail has a white vent and belly, contrasting with a black back.

Similar Species

The White Wagtail has a few closely related species that can be easily confused with it, such as the Pied Wagtail, Grey Wagtail, Yellow Wagtail, and Forest Wagtail. The Pied Wagtail is black and white, while the Grey Wagtail is grey and yellow.

The Yellow Wagtail has a yellow face and eyebrow. The Forest Wagtail has a distinctive long tail and crest.


The White Wagtail has multiple plumages throughout the year, such as the non-breeding or winter plumage, breeding or summer plumage, and juvenile plumage. The non-breeding plumage is duller and greyer compared to the breeding plumage.

The belly and vent are also less bright. The breeding plumage, on the other hand, has a brighter vent and belly and a bluer-grey back.

The Juvenile plumage has more yellow-brown coloration than the adult.


The White Wagtail molts twice a year, during the breeding and non-breeding months, from April to July and October to January, respectively. During the molting process, the bird sheds its old feathers and grows new ones.

This is a critical process for the bird’s survival because old feathers can become damaged, making it harder for it to fly and stay warm in winter. The molt cycle of the White Wagtail can be classified into three phases: Pre-basic molt, Pre-alternate molt, and Juvenile molt.

The Pre-basic molt happens during the winter but before breeding season. During this period, the bird molts to acquire its breeding plumage.

The Pre-alternate molt happens before the arrival of winter, replacing the breeding plumage with duller colors. The Juvenile molt happens after the bird leaves the nest, and the young birds become independent.


The White Wagtail is a fascinating bird species that can be easily identified in the field. With its distinct tail wag and coloration, it stands out from other birds.

Its multiple plumages and molt cycles are fascinating to observe. Studying this bird species and understanding its behavior and biology is vital to its conservation.

Systematics History,

Geographic Variation,

Subspecies, and

Related Species of White Wagtail

The White Wagtail, or Motacilla alba, is a passerine bird in the family Motacillidae. It is a common bird in Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa, and it is considered part of a species complex that includes a variable series of subspecies.

In this article, we will take a closer look at the systematics history, geographic variation, subspecies, and related species of White Wagtail.

Systematics History

The first scientific description of the White Wagtail was made in 1758 by Carl Linnaeus, who coined the birds scientific name as Motacilla alba. The White Wagtail was later classified in the genus Motacilla, which includes several wagtail species.

However, the White Wagtail had many relationships with several species, subspecies, and groups, which made its classification difficult. For example, the white-bellied forms were considered different species, while the black and greys were also considered different species.

In 2011, modern molecular and genetic techniques helped in revising the taxonomy of the genus Motacilla, and nine subclades or groups were identified. The groups represented the supraspecific categories that were recognized previously.

Geographic Variation

The White Wagtail has a distinctive coloration depending on its geographic location. The Northern European forms, such as the White Wagtail, have a black back contrasting with white underparts, throat, and face.

The African forms, such as Motacilla alba subpersonata, have a poorly defined grey-black back contrasting with white underparts, throat, and face. The East Asian forms, such as M.

alba leucopsis, have a black back contrasting with a white vent and belly, while the black-backed forms such as M. a.

lugens have a black back and black underparts.


The White Wagtail has many subspecies worldwide, with variations in coloration, size, and morphology. Some of the subspecies that lack white vent patches are grey-backed and black-backed, such as M.

a. lugens from the Far East, M.

a. yarrellii from Scotland, and M.

a. alboides from Central Asia.

The subspecies of White Wagtail are arranged in a continuous cline, with geographical proximity and isolation contributing to the differences in coloration and morphology. Some of the subspecies of White Wagtail include:

– Motacilla alba alba – Nominate form found in northern and central Europe

– Motacilla alba jejuensis – Found in Jeju Island, South Korea

– Motacilla alba baicalensis – Found in Southern Siberia, Russia

– Motacilla alba iberiae – Endemic to the Iberian Peninsula

– Motacilla alba lugens – Found in the Far East, including Japan, China, and Korea

Related Species

The White Wagtail is considered part of a complex comprising several other species of wagtails. Some of the related species of White Wagtail are:

– Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) – Found in Europe and Asia

– Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba yarrellii) – Found in Europe and Asia and has a distinct black and white plumage.

– Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) – Found in Europe and Asia, with variations in coloration. – Forest Wagtail (Dendronanthus indicus) – Found in East and South Asia and has a distinct long tail and crest.

Historical Changes to Distribution

The distribution of the White Wagtail has undergone many changes throughout history. The White Wagtail has been considered a native species in Europe, and the Middle East, with populations in Africa, Asia, and Northern Africa.

However, there have been some changes to the distribution of the species due to human intervention. For example, the advent of railways and shipping in the 19th century enabled the species to spread across the globe, including to the Americas and Australia.

The White Wagtail was first introduced to North America in 1918 and has since become a resident population in many parts of the continent. Another reason for the changes in distribution is climate change.

Climate change has altered the habitat range of the White Wagtail, leading to changes in migratory behavior and nesting sites. The bird has had to adapt to the changes, leading to the emergence of new subspecies in different regions.


The White Wagtail is a fascinating bird species with a complex taxonomic history. Its geographic variation, subspecies, and relationship with related species have contributed to its unique identity.

The changes in its distribution have also shaped its current range, and identifying its subspecies has become a vital part of understanding its biology and distribution. The study of White Wagtail is necessary for its conservation, as it is necessary to understand its changing needs in different regions and habitats.


Movements, and

Migration of White Wagtail

The White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) is a small passerine bird commonly found across Europe, Asia, and Africa. The species varies in different habitats and is well adapted to urban life.

In this article, we will dive deeper into its habitat, movements, and migration.


The White Wagtail is a highly adaptable bird species that inhabits a wide range of habitats, including urban, suburban, and rural environments. The species favors open areas with short vegetation, including meadows, fields, and open woodlands.

It can also be found in urban areas such as parks and gardens, and its acrobatic movements make it a common sight on city streets and sidewalks. White Wagtails also need water, and they are usually found along streams, rivers, and shorelines.

The species can also thrive in areas with harsh weather conditions, including high altitudes and regions with temperatures below the freezing point. The adaptable nature of the White Wagtail has enabled it to thrive in many environments, making it one of the most common birds in many regions of the world.


White Wagtails exhibit a range of movements, including vertical and horizontal movements. Vertical movements involve daily or seasonal changes in altitude, while horizontal movements refer to movements across vast areas.

White Wagtails tend to move across their territories in search of food or suitable breeding habitats. The vertical movements of White Wagtails involve daily flights to and from nesting and feeding sites.

During the breeding season, the male White Wagtail defends its territory and will engage in vertical flights to establish its position within the local population of other White Wagtails. These flights may reach up to a height of 70 meters above the ground.

During non-breeding times, White Wagtails take relatively short flights to feeding and roosting sites. Horizontal movements are more noticeable in the species’ migratory behavior.

The White Wagtail is a migratory bird that breeds in the mid-latitudes of Europe and Asia before moving to wintering grounds mainly in Africa. During migration, White Wagtails may travel up to 10,000 km across different regions of the globe.


The White Wagtail is a long-distance migratory bird, and different subspecies undertake different migratory routes. The species that breed in Europe move to their wintering grounds in Africa south of the Sahara, while the subspecies that breed in the Far East, such as Japan and China, migrate to Southeast Asia.

The subspecies that breed in Eastern Siberia have a migration pattern similar to those that breed in Europe. White Wagtails use different migration routes to move from their breeding grounds to their wintering sites.

The Eastern Yellow Wagtail is one of the best-known migratory birds that links the far east to other populations using migratory pathways. The populations of birds that have crossed the Bering Strait connect the eastern Siberian breeding grounds to wintering grounds in southeast Asia.

Additionally, White Wagtails that breed in Europe and Northern Asia follow a migratory route crossing the Sahara Desert to reach their wintering grounds. Although White Wagtails are migratory, some geographical populations are sedentary, and these populations do not undergo long-distance flights during the winter.

The sedentary populations mostly consist of White Wagtails that inhabit shoreline habitats.


The White Wagtail is a fascinating bird species, with its ability to adapt to different environments and its varied movements and migrations. The species exhibits a broad range of movements, including vertical and horizontal movements, and its migratory behavior involves a range of different routes and destinations.

Understanding its movements and migration routes is essential for conservation, and its adaptive nature should provide opportunities to manage habitats that enhance the survival of the species.

Diet and Foraging, and Sounds and Vocal Behavior of White Wagtail

White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) is well-known for its acrobatic movements, distinctive shape, and plumage. Apart from its physical characteristics, the White Wagtail also has unique foraging and vocal behavior.

In this article, we will dive deeper into its diet and foraging, metabolic and temperature regulation, and vocal behavior.

Diet and Foraging


White Wagtails are insectivorous birds and prefer insects with soft body parts. They are visual hunters, and their prey is detected by sight.

The wagtails mostly forage by walking or running along the ground, picking up insects and larvae, which are often found in open areas such as meadows, fields, and agricultural landscapes. White Wagtails engage in various feeding behaviors, including chasing insects in the air, catching insects in mid-air, and running after insects on the ground.

Such a repertoire of feeding behaviors has helped the bird species to become successful at finding food in different environments.


The White Wagtail’s diet consists of different species of insects, including flies, ants, beetles, termites, spiders, and Hymenoptera. They also feed on small crustaceans, snails, worms, and other small invertebrates.

The species requires a high metabolic rate, as insects are small and provide relatively low amounts of energy.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

The White Wagtail has a high metabolism to ensure that it has an adequate supply of energy to carry out their energetic activities. They require a high metabolic rate to maintain their active, acrobatic movements.

The species has also developed adaptations to handle temperature changes and regulation. White Wagtails are endothermic, which means that they can regulate their internal body temperature.

Their high metabolic rate enables them to adjust body temperature by the generation of heat, which warms their internal organs and other parts of the body, such as their muscles. The species has also developed a light-colored belly and feathers to cope with the temperature changes in its environment.

The light coloration helps to reflect the sun’s radiation, which would otherwise heat up the darker feathers, making the bird uncomfortable.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior


White Wagtails are known for their vocalization, which is diverse and complex. They have a melodic and tinkling call, usually expressed through small whistles and trills.

The vocalization of the bird species varies according to the situation; during the breeding season, it emits loud and repeated high-pitched “chit” notes to mark its territory or ward off potential threats. The species has a complex and distinct song, which is divided into different elements that are repeated in a specific order.

The song is usually uttered when the bird is in flight or perched on a tree, and it usually extends for a more extended period. The song of the White Wagtail is distinctive and impressive, and their vocalization is one of the ways that the species communicates.

The different elements of the song serve different purposes, such as attracting mates and marking territories. Thus, the complexity and diversity of the vocalization of the White Wagtail add to the species’ uniqueness.


White Wagtails are insectivorous birds with unique abilities to forage and vocalize. The species is well adapted to different habitats and environments, and its feeding behavior reflects its adaptation.

Their metabolic rate helps them cope with temperature changes, and they have impressive vocalization that serves various communication purposes. The distinctive features of the White Wagtail, including its physical characteristics, feeding habits, metabolic rate, and vocalization, have made it a fascinating and unique bird species.


Breeding, Demography, and Populations of White Wagtail

White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) is a highly adaptive and unique bird species with specific behaviors that distinguish it from other bird species. In this article, we will go in more depth about its behavior, breeding, demography, and populations.



The White Wagtail is known for its energetic and acrobatic movements. The species uses various modes of locomotion, such as walking, running, and hopping, to move through its environment.

It can also engage in aerial feeding by jumping and flying at the same time to capture insects. The species also has a distinct tail wag, which is characterized by rapid and exaggerated movements of its tail.

This tail wagging behavior is used to attract potential mates, deter rivals or other threats, and solicit the attention of other wagtails.


White Wagtails exhibit various self-maintenance behaviors to keep their feathers and skin in good condition. The behaviors include preening, stretching, and bathing.

Preening involves maintaining the feathers and beak by cleaning and arranging them using the beak. Stretching helps to relieve tension, while bathing helps to keep the skin hydrated and the feathers clean.

Agonistic and Sexual Behavior

White Wagtails display various agonistic behaviors such as agonistic displays, fights, and chasing other birds from their breeding territories. The agonistic displays are usually used to establish dominance, defend territories, and signal aggression.

During the breeding season, White Wagtails engage in sexual behavior that includes courtship displays, singing, and nest building. The male White Wagtail performs courtship dances and flights to attract females, while the female selects a mate based on the health, physical condition, and quality of his song.


White Wagtails breed from April to August in the northern hemisphere. During this period, males occupy territories and defend them aggressively against other males.

The courtship usually lasts for 3-4 days, during which the male performs different displays, including song, dance, and postures, to attract females. White Wagtails are monogamous, and they form pair bonds to raise their young.

The female White Wagtail builds the nest, which is usually located in crevices, rocks,

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