This delightful, small, long-tailed and quick-moving black-and-white bird, about 18cm in length including its tail – which it really does wag – is common in most areas of the UK. There are about 300,000 breeding pairs across the country, and although sadly they are in decline, Fairfield has its fair share of them.
The male pied wagtail is starkly black and white; females, although still definitely pied, also have some grey plumage. The wag of the tail is a distinctive up-and-down pumping movement that is common to all wagtails. (The two other species which breed in the UK are the grey wagtail – a little less common than its pied cousin and with a distinctive yellow belly which makes it a lot less grey than you might expect – and the yellow wagtail, which is a little yellower, a little less common, and can only be seen here in the summer as it overwinters in Africa.)
Pied wagtails do not tend to migrate from England, so can be seen all year round, but during the autumn and winter their numbers in this part of the country may swell a little as our local birds are joined by some from Scotland or upland areas in the north of England, where winters are more hostile. They are often seen on pavements and rooftops – or flying low across the newly mown cricket pitch.
Their main food is insects, which they catch on the ground and in the air, but in the autumn and winter, when insects are scarce, they will come into gardens to feed on seeds and bread. This is also the time of year when large flocks of wagtails and other small birds can be seen roosting together in town and city centres, taking advantage of the heat lost from homes, shops and offices. In the countryside they will often occupy farm buildings. During the very coldest months, when food is scarce, adult males will establish feeding territories, which they defend fiercely; if there is plenty of food they will share with females and non-breeding young males, but not other adult males.
Pied wagtails will nest almost anywhere, but their preference is for holes – in buildings, on rock faces and in trees, often next to water or near sewage farms where the insects are most likely to be found. They will also use open-fronted nest boxes if they are well concealed.
The female builds a nest of twigs, plant stems, dead leaves and moss, which she lines with hair, wool and feathers. She then lays a clutch of five or six pale blue or whitish eggs with greyish speckles. The eggs hatch within seven to twelve days and the chicks are fed by both parents until they are fledged and ready to leave three weeks later. There are usually two broods per year. Wagtails normally live for four to five years, but the oldest recorded in the UK was an impressive eleven years old.