Grey wagtail

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Grey wagtail
Grey wagtail by Gunjan Pandey.jpg
Grey wagtail in Hyderabad, India
Scientific classification Red Pencil Icon.png
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Motacillidae
Genus: Motacilla
M. cinerea
Binomial name
Motacilla cinerea
Tunstall, 1771
MotacillaCinereaDistributionMapIUCNv8 2.png
Range of M. cinerea
  Extant, breeding
  Extant, resident
  Extant, non-breeding

Motacilla melanope
Calobates melanope

The grey wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) is a member of the wagtail family, Motacillidae, measuring around 18–19 cm overall length. The species looks somewhat similar to the yellow wagtail but has the yellow on its underside restricted to the throat and vent. Breeding males have a black throat. The species is widely distributed, with several populations breeding in Eurosiberia and migrating to tropical regions in Asia and Africa. The species is always associated with running water when breeding, although they may use man-made structures near streams for the nest. Outside the breeding season, they may also be seen around lakes, coasts and other watery habitats. Like other wagtails, they frequently wag their tail and fly low with undulations and they have a sharp call that is often given in flight.


Taxonomy and systematics

The binomial name of the grey wagtail Motacilla cinerea was introduced by Marmaduke Tunstall in his 1771 publication Ornithologia Britannica. [2] [3] Motacilla is the Latin name for the pied wagtail; although actually a diminutive of motare, "to move about", from medieval times it led to the misunderstanding of cilla as "tail". The specific cinerea is Latin for "ash-grey" from cinis, "ashes". [4]

The relationships of this species are not well resolved; it belongs to the non-African clade of wagtails, these are confusing in their external morphology, and mtDNA cytochrome b and NADH dehydrogenase subunit 2 sequence data are not able to robustly resolve their relationships. While the present species is probably most closely related to citrine wagtails and some blue-headed wagtails, the exact nature of this relationship is unclear. [5]


Male M. c. melanope Grey Wagtail- Breeding Male I IMG 6705.jpg
Male M. c. melanope

This slim wagtail has a narrow white supercilium and a broken eye ring. The upperparts are grey and the yellow vent contrasting with whitish underparts makes it distinctive. The breeding male has a black throat that is edged by whitish moustachial stripes. They forage singly or in pairs on meadows or on shallow water marshes. They also use rocks in water and will often perch on trees. They have a clear sharp call note and the song consists of trills. [6]

Distribution and habitat

The bird is widely distributed across the Palearctic region with several well marked populations. The nominate form (includes caspica of Iran, Turkey and the Caucasus) is from western Europe including the British Isles, Scandinavia and Mediterranean region. Race melanope, which is not well separated from the nominate subspecies, is described as the population breeding in eastern Europe and central Asia mainly along the mountain chains of the Urals, Tien Shan and along the Himalayas. [7] They winter in Africa and Asia. Race robusta breeds along the northeastern parts of Asia in Siberia extending to Korea and Japan. These winter in Southeast Asia. Island forms include patriciae of the Azores, schmitzi of Madeira and canariensis of the Canary Islands.

They sometimes occur on the islands to the West of Alaska but have been known to occur further south in California as a vagrant. [8]

Behaviour and ecology

Nominate race (Belgium) Motacilla cinerea 1 Luc Viatour.jpg
Nominate race (Belgium)

The breeding season is April to July and the nest is placed near fast running streams or rivers on an embankment between stones and roots. [6] The male in display, makes short flights up into the air and descends slowly with fluttering flight accompanied by a rapid series of chipping high notes. [9] In Europe the nests are often made in holes in manmade structures. The clutch consists of 3–6 speckled eggs and multiple broods may be raised with declining numbers in the clutch in subsequent broods. [10] The usual clutch size is five in Ireland and the breeding success is about 80% with predation of eggs or chicks being the main cause of breeding failure. [11] The Canary Islands population typically have smaller clutches and the breeding season is not as short and well marked as in populations at higher latitudes. [12] The incubation period is about two weeks with chicks fledging within a fortnight. They live for a maximum of 8 years in the wild. [13] [14]

Eggs, Collection Museum Wiesbaden Motacilla cinerea MWNH 1570.JPG
Eggs, Collection Museum Wiesbaden

In some parts of its range the white-throated dipper nests in the same habitats as the grey wagtail and there are some records of interspecific feeding of dipper chicks by adult wagtails. [15]

These birds feed on a variety of aquatic invertebrates including adult flies, mayflies, beetles, crustacea and molluscs. [16] They often forage along roadsides in winter, flushing with a sharp chi-cheep call and flying up further along the road but after some distance turning back to return to the original location. [9]

In winter, they roost in small groups. [17] Wintering birds have been known to return to the same sites, sometimes a small urban garden, each year. [9] [18]

Adults often have parasitic ticks, Ixodes ricinus , which can harbour Borrelia and thus can potentially disperse Lyme disease over a wide region. [19] Coccidia such as Isospora sp. are known in this species. [20] The common cuckoo is sometimes a brood parasite of this species, [21] and kestrels may sometimes prey on them. [22]

Related Research Articles

Dipper Genus of birds

Dippers are members of the genus Cinclus in the bird family Cinclidae, named for their bobbing or dipping movements. They are unique among passerines for their ability to dive and swim underwater.

Common cuckoo Species of bird

The common cuckoo is a member of the cuckoo order of birds, Cuculiformes, which includes the roadrunners, the anis and the coucals.

Wagtail Genus of birds

The wagtail is a genus, Motacilla, of passerine birds in the family Motacillidae. The forest wagtail belongs to the monotypic genus Dendronanthus which is closely related to Motacilla and sometimes included therein. The common name and genus names are derived from their characteristic tail pumping behaviour. Together with the pipits and longclaws they form the family Motacillidae.

White wagtail Species of bird

The white wagtail is a small passerine bird in the family Motacillidae, which also includes pipits and longclaws. The species breeds in much of Europe and the Asian Palearctic and parts of North Africa. It has a toehold in Alaska as a scarce breeder. It is resident in the mildest parts of its range, but otherwise migrates to Africa. In Ireland and Great Britain, the darker subspecies, the pied wagtail or water wagtail predominates. In total, there are between 9 and 11 subspecies.

Motacillidae Family of birds

The wagtails, longclaws and pipits are a family, Motacillidae, of small passerine birds with medium to long tails. There are around 65 species in 6 genera. The longclaws are entirely restricted to the Afrotropics, and the wagtails are predominantly found in Europe, Africa and Asia, with two species migrating and breeding in Alaska. The pipits have the most cosmopolitan distribution, being found across mostly in the Old World but occurring also in the Americas and oceanic islands such as New Zealand and the Falklands. Two African species, the yellow-breasted pipit and Sharpe's longclaw, are sometimes placed in a separate seventh genus, Hemimacronyx, which is closely related to the longclaws.

Grey heron Long-legged predatory wading bird

The grey heron is a long-legged predatory wading bird of the heron family, Ardeidae, native throughout temperate Europe and Asia and also parts of Africa. It is resident in much of its range, but some populations from the more northern parts migrate southwards in autumn. A bird of wetland areas, it can be seen around lakes, rivers, ponds, marshes and on the sea coast. It feeds mostly on aquatic creatures which it catches after standing stationary beside or in the water or stalking its prey through the shallows.

Western yellow wagtail Species of bird

The western yellow wagtail is a small passerine in the wagtail family Motacillidae, which also includes the pipits and longclaws.

Citrine wagtail Species of bird

The citrine wagtail (Motacilla citreola) is a small songbird in the family Motacillidae.

Water pipit Species of passerine bird

The water pipit is a small passerine bird which breeds in the mountains of Southern Europe and the Palearctic eastwards to China. It is a short-distance migrant; many birds move to lower altitudes or wet open lowlands in winter.

Eurasian blackcap Bird in the Old World warbler family from Eurasia and Africa

The Eurasian blackcap usually known simply as the blackcap, is a common and widespread typical warbler. It has mainly olive-grey upperparts and pale grey underparts, and differences between the five subspecies are small. Both sexes have a neat coloured cap to the head, black in the male and reddish-brown in the female. The male's typical song is a rich musical warbling, often ending in a loud high-pitched crescendo, but a simpler song is given in some isolated areas, such as valleys in the Alps. The blackcap's closest relative is the garden warbler, which looks quite different but has a similar song.

Buff-bellied pipit Species of bird

The buff-bellied pipit or American pipit is a small songbird found on both sides of the northern Pacific. It was first described by Marmaduke Tunstall in his 1771 Ornithologia Britannica. It was formerly classified as a form of the water pipit. It is known as "American pipit" in North America and "buff-bellied pipit" in Eurasia.

White-browed wagtail Species of bird

The white-browed wagtail or large pied wagtail is a medium-sized bird and is the largest member of the wagtail family. They are conspicuously patterned with black above and white below, a prominent white brow, shoulder stripe and outer tail feathers. White-browed wagtails are native to South Asia, common near small water bodies and have adapted to urban environments where they often nest on roof tops. The specific name is derived from the Indian city of Madras.

Forest wagtail Species of bird

The forest wagtail is a medium-sized passerine bird in the wagtail family Motacillidae. It has a distinctive plumage that sets it apart from other wagtails and has the habit of wagging its tail sideways unlike the usual up and down movements of the other wagtail species. It is the only wagtail species that nests in trees. They are found mainly in forested habitats, breeding in the temperate parts of east Asia and wintering across tropical Asia from India to Indonesia.

Cape wagtail Species of bird

The Cape wagtail, also known as Wells's wagtail, is a small insectivorous bird which is widespread in southern Africa. It frequents water's edge, lawns and gardens. It is a mostly resident, territorial species, but has been known to undertake limited altitudinal migration or form flocks outside of the breeding season. Like other wagtails they are passerine birds of the family Motacillidae, which also includes the pipits and longclaws.

Red-chested cuckoo Species of bird

The red-chested cuckoo is a species of cuckoo in the family Cuculidae. It is a medium-sized bird found in Africa south of the Sahara. In Afrikaans, it is known as "Piet-my-vrou", after its call.

African pied wagtail Species of bird

The African pied wagtail, or African wagtail, is a species of bird in the family Motacillidae.

Madagascan wagtail Species of bird

The Madagascan wagtail is a species of wagtail in the family Motacillidae. It is endemic to Madagascar.

Japanese wagtail Species of bird

The Japanese wagtail is a species of bird in the pipit and wagtail family Motacillidae. It is native to Japan and Korea.

Eastern yellow wagtail Species of bird

The eastern yellow wagtail is a small passerine in the wagtail family Motacillidae, which also includes the pipits and longclaws. It was often classified as a subspecies of the Western yellow wagtail.

Stephanie Joy Tyler, also known as Steph Tyler, is a British ornithologist, zoologist, naturalist, conservationist, and author from Monmouthshire. She is particularly known for her work on Dippers and the preservation of river habitats.


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