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White Wagtail

March 2018 Bird of the Month

White Wagtail          Motacilla alba Andy McCormick

Length  7.25”   Wingspan  10.5”   Weight  0.63 oz (18 g)    AOU Alpha Code WHWA

A rare visitor to the Pacific Northwest, a White Wagtail was seen in Fall City this year. 


White Wagtail by Le poidesans

Photo: White Wagtail, by Le poidesans.


Ten Previous Records in Washington

White Wagtails do not get to Washington very often. According to the Washington Bird Record Committee, the first record of a sighting in Washington was in 1981. The most recent before this year was in 2015. The other records include two sightings in 1984, and one each in 1985, 1986, 1990, 1993, 2000, and 2006. The 2018 is only the third sighting in King County (WBRC). The records committee will conduct a thorough review before the record is officially accepted.


Eurasia to Western Alaska

The White Wagtail is a common bird across Europe and Asia and there are nine subspecies identified. Two of the subspecies Motacilla alba ocularis and Motacilla alba lugens can be found in western Alaska. Either one is considered a vagrant, that is, a bird far outside its normal range, when seen on the west coast of Canada or the United States. 

The genus name Motacilla, is from the Latin, motacis, little mover, and the diminutive, -illa. The species epithet is from the Latin alba meaning white (Holloway). M. a. lugens was once considered a separate species and named Black-backed Wagtail before the two species were lumped in 2005 (Sibley 2009). 


White and Black

The White Wagtail is predominantly a white bird and the amount of black varies with the subspecies. Both have a white face with a black line through the eye and a black bib. M. a. ocularis has a gray back and gray flight feathers, while M.a.lugens has a black back and flight feathers are mostly white (Alderfer). Both have long black tails marked by white outer tail feathers. 


Appropriately Named

The White Wagtail will walk, hop, and run and almost continuously wag its tail. It has a strongly undulating flight which accentuates its tail wagging. It can be quite active as it forages, and even on wintering grounds it will defend its territory. You can view a video of a White Wagtail (M. a. ocularis) exhibiting its characteristic tail wagging at the Macaulay Library.

This wagtail will demonstrate aggressive behavior on both the breeding and wintering grounds and aerial fights can be common. The Head Bobbing Display with the body outstretched and bill pointed upward is common and used in response to aggression by another bird.  


Likes Old Stuff

White Wagtails seem to favor artificial structures for their nest sites. Nests have been found in Alaska in abandoned fishing huts, old gold dredges, empty fuel tanks, and on piles of debris. It forages for insects including flies, beetles, dragonfly larvae, caterpillars, and moths. It picks items from the ground, or will make a run at them. At other time it will pick insects out of the air (Kaufman). 

The wagtails build a n open cup nest of twigs and grass often lined with hair and feathers. Five to seven eggs are deposited and incubation takes about two weeks. Both parents feed the nestlings which fledge in another two weeks. The population of White Wagtails is globally widespread and no conservation measures are in place. Expansion of human settlements is likely to increase habitat options for White Wagtails and some expect expansion in North America. 


Photo credit Le poidesans. References available upon request from



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