Photo: Doug Wechsler/Vireo

White Wagtail

Motacilla alba

One of the most common birds of open country across Europe and Asia, the White Wagtail enters North America only as a scarce and local summer resident of western Alaska. There it seems to favor the vicinity of manmade structures: most of the nests found in Alaska have been in abandoned fishing huts, old gold dredges, empty fuel tanks, or piles of debris on the beach. Birders are likely to spot this wagtail first as it flies past, giving a metallic call, trailing its long tail in undulating flight.
Conservation status Small population in Alaska is probably stable. Widespread and abundant in Eurasia.
Family Wagtails and Pipits
Habitat Rocky places, towns, rivers. In Alaska, very localized in summer. Seldom on open tundra, usually around low sea cliffs, coastal villages, or shacks on beaches, sometimes on gravel flats of rivers well inland. In the Old World, found in almost any kind of open or semi-open terrain.
One of the most common birds of open country across Europe and Asia, the White Wagtail enters North America only as a scarce and local summer resident of western Alaska. There it seems to favor the vicinity of manmade structures: most of the nests found in Alaska have been in abandoned fishing huts, old gold dredges, empty fuel tanks, or piles of debris on the beach. Birders are likely to spot this wagtail first as it flies past, giving a metallic call, trailing its long tail in undulating flight.
Photo Gallery
  • adult, breeding
  • adult, nonbreeding
  • juvenile
Feeding Behavior

Feeds on ground or along edge of water. Forages by walking and picking up items, by making quick dashes to grab active insects, or by flying up to catch insects in the air. Sometimes walks on floating vegetation or in shallow water.


Eggs

5-7, sometimes 3-8. Whitish to gray, finely spotted with gray or brown. Incubation is by both parents (female does more), about 12-13 days. Young: Both parents feed nestlings. Young leave nest about 11-16 days after hatching, are tended by parents for up to another week.


Young

Both parents feed nestlings. Young leave nest about 11-16 days after hatching, are tended by parents for up to another week.

Diet

Insects. Diet in Alaska not known in detail. In Old World, eats mostly insects, including midges, crane flies, and other flies, beetles, mayflies, dragonfly larvae, caterpillars, moths, and many others. Feeds on a variety of aquatic insect larvae as well as adult insects. Also eats some spiders, earthworms, tiny fish, and seeds.


Nesting

In courtship, male pursues female. On ground, male points bill up to show off throat pattern, runs in zigzags near female, postures with deep bowing, tail lowered and spread widely; may raise one wing over back. Nest: Natural sites are in crevices among rocks or cliffs; many in Alaska nest in artificial sites, such as abandoned gold dredges, buildings, or empty oil drums, or under debris. Usually nests low. Nest (usually built by both sexes, but female may do more) is open cup of twigs, grass, rootlets, moss, lined with hair and feathers.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Those nesting in Alaska spend the winter mostly in southeast Asia. Outside of Alaska, only a very rare stray in the New World. Some of those strays reaching south to California on the Pacific Coast have been of the "Black-backed" form from extreme eastern Siberia.

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Migration

Those nesting in Alaska spend the winter mostly in southeast Asia. Outside of Alaska, only a very rare stray in the New World. Some of those strays reaching south to California on the Pacific Coast have been of the "Black-backed" form from extreme eastern Siberia.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Call constantly uttered in flight is a 2-tone tschizzik or tzilip. Warning call is zipp.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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