Pipits and Wagtails: Motacillidae
Gray Wagtail (motacilla Cinerea): Species Accounts
Physical characteristics: Gray wagtails range in size from 7.1 to 7.5 inches (18 to 19 centimeters) and in weight from 0.5 to 0.8 ounces (14 to 22 grams). Their gray upper body is offset by bright yellow on their undersides. In summer the males develop a distinctive face pattern of white stripes and a black bib.
Geographic range: This species inhabits areas of northwest Africa and Europe east to Iran, northeast China and Japan, Pakistan, and New Guinea. They migrate for the winter to western Europe, the Middle East, and Africa south to Malawi.
Habitat: Gray wagtails seek out fast-moving, rocky upland rivers and streams, but many occupy territories near canals and on rock-strewn lakeshores with dense foliage and tree cover. In winter, they can also be seen in lowlands near bodies of water, at the coast, and in estuaries (EST-yoo-air-eez), where freshwater and saltwater mix. Some birds spend the winter in towns.
Diet: Gray wagtails feed mainly on aquatic insects. They also eat small fish and tadpoles. Gray wagtails forage both on the ground and in the water, and occasionally catch airborne insects.
Behavior and reproduction: Gray wagtails are territorial during the breeding season, March through May. Some defend their feeding areas during winter, when they tend to roost in groups. Mating pairs are monogamous, and the male helps to build the nest, usually on a cliff ledge or among tree roots. The female lays three to seven eggs, and both parents then incubate the young for eleven to fourteen days. The young leave the nest within eleven to seventeen days.
Gray wagtails and people: Birdwatchers often confuse this species with the yellow wagtail, but the gray wagtail has a gray, rather than yellowish brown, back; a longer, more strongly patterned black-and-white tail; and a broad, pale wing-bar when in flight.
Conservation status: Gray wagtails are considered Vulnerable due to the destruction of their favored habitats by development and contamination. ∎
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