The Pied Wagtail
Pied wagtails are those smart little black-and-white birds that look a bit like Charlie Chaplin as they strut around, twitching their tails up and down all the time.
The elegant black-and-white pied wagtail is a familiar sight dashing and bobbing about as it charges across roofs and lawns, around car parks and over cricket pitches. It is often seen near water, by ditches, on the banks of a stream or paddling in the muddy margins of a pond. In fact, pied wagtails are found almost everywhere, except in mountains and in woodland.
The dainty pied wagtail is extremely nimble on its feet, briskly walking or chasing after flying insects. Without warning, it may leap into the air or veer off in a new direction in pursuit of another juicy fly. All the time it is pumping its tail jauntily and emitting its squeaky tschizzik-tschizzik call.
Victimised by cuckoos
A newly-fledged pied wagtail is greyer than either of its parents, with an olive-green tinge and a much shorter tail. This young pied wagtail is lucky that it was not thrown out of its nest by a cuckoo chick. Despite the pied wagtails’ best efforts to conceal their nests, they often attract the attention of a female cuckoo, which then lays one of her eggs in their nest.
In his book, The Charm of Birds, Viscount Grey described how one year a cuckoo targeted a pair of pied wagtails that regularly nested in the creeper on his cottage. After they had raised their gigantic foster chick, the pair built a new nest on the rear wall of the cottage. The cuckoo laid another egg in that nest and the luckless wagtails had to rear a second monster.
The following year the pair nested in the creeper once more, and again a cuckoo raided the nest. This time the pied wagtails abandoned it and never built there again.
Signs of breeding
By late February or early March male pied wagtails are staking out their breeding territories. At this time they become pugnacious, attacking other males and even going for their own reflections in windows, hubcaps and wing mirrors.
As a prelude to erratic and exciting courtship chases, each male sings a lovely warbling song. He approaches a likely female with his tail fanned, wings quivering and head bobbing. Then he tilts back his head to show off his black throat and breastplate.
The new pair selects a sheltered site – a cavity in a stone wall, wood stack or earth bank, on an ivy-covered tree trunk or a shelf in an outbuilding or farm machinery – to build their nest.
Working mainly in the mornings, a female pied wagtail builds a bulky nest of matted moss, grass and dead leaves and lines it with a thick layer of feathers, hair and wool. She lays a clutch of five or six greyish-white eggs with grey freckles. She does most of the incubation for 14 days but the male helps her to feed their brood. About 14 days after hatching, the fledglings graduate from the nest.
Many pied wagtails head south into Europe for the winter. Those that stay behind look greyer than they did during the summer. After an autumn moult, instead of the black throat and deep black bib of his breeding plumage, the male sports a white throat and thin black crescent-shaped cravat. His white cheeks become flecked with black and his back and flanks look slightly greyer. Only his rump stays black.
The spring transformation back to his crisp breeding colours is the result of a partial moult which is completed by the courting season. This spring moult takes place earlier abroad than it does in Britain, for returning birds are noticeably cleaner and trimmer than birds that have overwintered here. Each autumn, breeding is followed by a second, complete moult which restores the greyer winter plumage and replaces the worn-out wing feathers.
The pied wagtail hunts insects on the ground or in the shallows of a stream or puddle. As it struts about on its long legs, its head jerks back and forth all the time, like a little clockwork toy, while its tail twitches up and down non-stop.
On spying an insect, a sprightly pied wagtail dashes after it, tripping erratically along on tippy-toes. Such headlong dashes are interspersed with sudden changes of direction and short fluttery zig-zagging sallies into the air – it can even hover briefly to snatch a fly in mid-air. It looks as if it is acting on pure impulse, torn between several tasty morsels, or being buffeted by the wind. But, in fact, few flying insects escape from its snapping beak.
Pied wagtails snap up a lot of the flies which torment sheep, cattle and horses in fields and paddocks. The fearless little birds rush daringly between the legs of the hefty beasts. Sometimes they hitch a ride on the back of a sheep, dashing to and fro over the ewe’s fleece, catching insects, while she wanders around.
When pied wagtails are feeding on dungflies gathered on cowpats, they defend temporary territories and drive away other wagtails to stop them from scattering the flies. It seems that dungflies only occupy cowpats during the middle of the day. So in the morning and evening, pied wagtails gather in flocks to feed on swarming midges instead.
Pied wagtails are keen followers of the plough too, trotting along the ridges and disappearing into the furrows to pick up the grubs turned over by the blades.
Pied wagtails are one of the few insect-eating birds to gamble on staying in Britain and finding enough food to keep them going through the cool winter months. In cold weather, the secret of the pied wagtail’s survival lies in the supplies of insects to be found on the margins of water.
Individual birds establish a winter territory along a stretch of water, such as a riverbank, and defend it against other wagtails. Each one feeds along a fixed route near the water’s edge, searching for insects. From time to time, it returns to its starting point for another run at the tiny insects flying over the shallow water. To share the area with another pied wagtail would be counter-productive for both, and might tip the balance between survival or death.
Finding flies in winter
The pied wagtails’ hunt for insects takes them to some pretty unsavoury places, especially in winter when they cannot find enough insects in frozen ditches or icy ponds. Then a pied wagtail becomes a frequent visitor to sewage farms, where the filter beds and sludge tanks stay warm and make good breeding grounds for swarms of small winged insects.
Farmyards, pigsties and stables also used to be favourite haunts of pied wagtails in the winter, when the warmth of manure heaps attracted plenty of flies even in cold weather. Now that most water supplies on farms are piped, cowsheds have been cleaned up and insecticides are widely used, there are fewer flies around. These more hygienic conditions have been bad news for insect-eaters like the pied wagtail.
In the garden
A pied wagtail is frequently seen striding and scurrying over lawns, snapping up flying insects – it has been aptly described as the walking house martin (an aerial flycatcher). The smooth swards of well-tended grass make an ideal hazard-free hunting ground – apart from any marauding resident cats which may be about.
While in the garden, pied wagtails sometimes visit a bird table and take chopped peanuts, mealworms, grated cheese or pinhead oatmeal.