- Motacilla flava
Length 15–16·5 cm (6-6½ in), weight 11–26 g
A wagtail with many plumage variations but all show uniform yellow breast and vent, most of the variation is to the head. A relatively short tail allows for differentiation of the grey headed varieties from the similar Grey Wagtail. Males are brighter than females, and juveniles duller still, often lacking any strong yellow tones.
Variation and Similar Species
The subspecies which have grey heads may look superficially like Grey Wagtails but they usually have greener or browner backs. The shorter tails and different calls of the Yellow Wagtail is always conclusive. Eastern Yellow Wagtail, formerly considered conspecific, is virtually indistinguishable with similar variation in head patterns; genetic tests are generally required for identification to be confirmed.
The main differences between the various races are described in the Taxonomy section. These differences are obvious in spring males, while autumn males, females, and juveniles can be very difficult or impossible to assign to subspecies. This Birdforum thread discusses the identification of females.
Common and widespread summer visitor to the region in a variety of races. Breeds in Britain (but absent from most of Scotland), much of France and Iberia and east to central Siberia, and reaching north to the White Sea in Russia. Occurs south to the north Mediterranean coast, Balearics, Sardinia, Crete and Cyprus, throughout Turkey and at a few scattered sites in the Middle East such as Azraq in Jordan and the Hula Swamp in Israel. In north Africa, breeds from the Banc D'Arguin of Mauritania, through Morocco to Tunisia, and in the Nile Delta and Valley in Egypt. Has bred rarely in Ireland.
North African populations are resident or only partial migrants, but most birds migrate to winter south of the Sahara Desert in Africa, and/or east to India. Small numbers may also occur in winter in southern Spain. Present on breeding grounds April-May until August-October, rarely later.
Eastern Yellow Wagtail from eastern Asia was formerly included in this species; genetic tests however show that western and eastern birds are respectively more closely to western and eastern populations of Citrine Wagtail than they are to each other.
About 10-12 subspecies occur in the Region differing mainly in head patterns of breeding male. Some of these are considered full species by some authorities.
- M.f. flava (Blue-headed Wagtail)
- M.f. flavissima (Yellow Wagtail)
- Breeds in Great Britain (north to southernmost Scotland), with a few pairs on the adjacent continent from northern France to the Netherlands, and have bred rarely in Ireland; migrates through northwest Africa. Yellow head with greenish tone to ear-coverts and crown. Note that M.f. flava and M.f. flavissima form a narrow hybrid zone in northern France. Birds from this zone vary in appearance, but one type, which resembles nominate M. f. flava except that the blue tones to the head are paler and more mauve and the white of the head is more extensive, particularly on the throat, ear-coverts, and supercilium; these are colloquially referred to as Channel Wagtail.
- M.f. cinereocapilla (Ashy-headed Wagtail)
- M.f. iberiae (Iberian Yellow Wagtail)
- M.f. thunbergi (Grey-headed Wagtail)
- Breeds in central and northern Scandinavia and Russia to north-west Siberia, migrates through north Africa and Middle East to wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa. Dark grey crown, black ear-coverts, no supercilium, chin and throat yellow (occasionally white, and then easily misidentified as M.f. cinereocapilla).
- M.f. feldegg (Black-headed Wagtail)
- Breeds Balkans, Turkey and the Near East to Iran and Afghanistan (and possibly nearest parts of Russia), migrates through Algeria, Libya and Egypt, Arabia and Middle East to wintering grounds mainly in eastern Africa as well as migrating to southern Asia. Vagrant to Britain (<10 records). Crown and ear-coverts black, no supercilium, underparts entirely yellow. Sometimes considered to merit full species rank, with call notes also differing from M. f. flava. Eastern end of the distributions differ in having head black, olive back paler than feldegg, paler yellow below, chin white; were formerly recognized as subspecies melanogrisea.
- M.f. pygmaea (Egyptian Wagtail)
- Resident in Egypt along the river Nile. Small size, greenish-grey crown, blackish-green ear-coverts, white chin, dark blotches on breast-sides and little or no supercilium.
- M.f. lutea (Khirgiz Steppe Wagtail)
- M.f. beema (Sykes's Wagtail)
- M.f. leucocephala (White-headed Wagtail)
Subspecies melanogrisea is no longer recognized, seems to have been included within feldegg. A couple of other forms are sometimes given names that look similar to subspecies but without formal recognition as such. These include "M. f. dombrowski" and "M. f. superciliaris".
Lowland grassland and wet meadows.
- On migration often seen in small mixed parties with Pied and White Wagtails
- Often seen feeding near cattle.
Markedly dipping flight. Walks and runs, constantly dipping tail.
The diet includes small insects, flies and beetles.
They are inclined to breed in small colonies, nesting in tussocks, laying 4-8 speckled eggs.
Click on photo for larger image
- Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, S. M. Billerman, T. A. Fredericks, J. A. Gerbracht, D. Lepage, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2021. The eBird/Clements checklist of Birds of the World: v2021. Downloaded from https://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/download/
- Collins Pocket Guide to British Birds 1966
- Tyler, S. and D. A. Christie (2020). Western Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, J. Sargatal, D. A. Christie, and E. de Juana, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.eaywag1.01
- BirdForum Opus contributors. (2023) Western Yellow Wagtail. In: BirdForum, the forum for wild birds and birding. Retrieved 7 December 2023 from https://www.birdforum.net/opus/Western_Yellow_Wagtail
GSearch checked for 2020 platform.1