Thai National Parks

Birds of Thailand

Species of Thailand

White wagtail

Binomial name: Motacilla alba, Carolus Linnaeus, 1758

The white wagtail (Motacilla alba) is a small passerine bird in the wagtail family Motacillidae, which also includes the pipits and longclaws. This species breeds in much of Europe and Asia and parts of north Africa. It is resident in the mildest parts of its range, but otherwise migrates to Africa. It has a toehold in Alaska as a scarce breeder. In the British Isles the darker sub-species the pied wagtail (M. a. yarrellii) predominates.

The white wagtail is an insectivorous bird of open country, often near habitation and water. It prefers bare areas for feeding, where it can see and pursue its prey. In urban areas it has adapted to foraging on paved areas such as car parks. It nests in crevices in stone walls and similar natural and man-made structures.

The white wagtail is the national bird of Latvia.

Taxonomy and systematics

The white wagtail was one of the many species originally described by Linnaeus in his 18th-century work, Systema Naturae, and it still bears its original name of Motacilla alba. The Latin genus name originally meant "little mover", but certain medieval writers thought it meant "wag-tail", giving rise to a new Latin word cilla for "tail". The specific epithet alba is Latin for "white".

Within the wagtail genus Motacilla, the white wagtail's closest relatives appear to be other black-and-white wagtails such as the Japanese wagtail, Motacilla grandis, and the white-browed wagtail, Motacilla madaraspatensis (and possibly the Mekong wagtail, Motacilla samveasnae, the phylogenetic position of which is mysterious), with which it appears to form a superspecies. However, mtDNA cytochrome b and NADH dehydrogenase subunit 2 sequence data suggests that the white wagtail is itself polyphyletic or paraphyletic (i.e. the species is not itself a single coherent grouping). Other phylogenetic studies using mtDNA still suggest that there is considerable gene flow within the races and the resulting closeness makes Motacilla alba a single species. Some studies have suggested the existence of only two groups : the alboides group, with M. a. alboides, M. a. leucopsis and M. a. personata; and the alba group, with M. a. alba, M. a. yarrellii, M. a. baicalensis, M. a. ocularis, M. a. lugens, and M. a. subpersonata.

Description

The white wagtail is a slender bird, 16.5–19 cm (6½–7½ in) in length (East Asian subspecies are longer, measuring up to 21 cm (8¼ in), with the characteristic long, constantly wagging tail of its genus. Its average weight is 25 g and the maximum lifespan in the wild is c. 12 years. The nominate subspecies Motacilla alba alba is basically grey above and white below, with a white face, black cap and black throat.

There are a number of other subspecies, some of which may have arisen because of partial geographical isolation, such as the resident British form, the pied wagtail M. a. yarrellii, which now also breeds in adjacent areas of the neighbouring European mainland. The pied wagtail, named for naturalist William Yarrell, exchanges the grey colour of the nominate form with black (or very dark grey in females), but is otherwise identical in its behaviour. Other subspecies, the validity of some of which is questionable, differ in the colour of the wings, back, and head, or other features. Some races show sexual dimorphism during the breeding season. As many as six subspecies may be present in the wintering ground in India or Southeast Asia and here they can be difficult to distinguish. Phylogenetic studies using mtDNA suggest that some morphological features have evolved more than once, including the back and chin colour. Breeding M. a. yarrellii look much like the nominate race except for the black back, and M. a. alboides of the Himalayas differs from the Central Asian M. a. personata only by its black back. M. a. personata has been recorded breeding in the Siddar Valley of Kashmir of the Western Himalayas. It has also been noted that both back and chin change colour during the pre-basic moult; all black-throated subspecies develop white chins and throats in winter and some black-backed birds are grey-backed in winter.

The call of the white wagtail is a sharp chisick, slightly softer than the version given by the pied wagtail. The song is a pleasant twittering, more regular in White than Pied, but with little territorial significance, since the male uses a series of contact calls to attract the female.

Distribution and habitat

This species breeds throughout Eurasia up to latitudes 75°N, only being absent in the Arctic from areas where the July isotherm is less than 4 °C. It also breeds in the mountains of Morocco and western Alaska. It occupies a wide range of habitats, but is absent from deserts.

White wagtail is resident in the milder parts of its range such as western Europe and the Mediterranean, but migratory in much of the rest of its range. Northern European breeders winter around the Mediterranean and in tropical and subtropical Africa, and Asiatic birds move to the Middle East, India, and SouthEast Asia. Birds from the North American population also winter in tropical Asia.

Behaviour and ecology

The most conspicuous habit of this species is a near-constant tail wagging, a trait that has given the species, and indeed the genus, its common name. In spite of the ubiquity of this behaviour, the reasons for it are poorly understood. It has been suggested that it may flush prey, or signal submissiveness to other wagtails. A recent study has suggested instead that it is a signal of vigilance to potential predators.

Diet and feeding

The exact composition of the diet of white wagtails varies by location, but terrestrial and aquatic insects and other small invertebrates form the major part of the diet. These range from beetles, dragonflies, small snails, spiders, worms, crustaceans, to maggots found in carcasses and, most importantly, flies in the order Diptera. Small fish fry have also been recorded in the diet. The white wagtail is somewhat unusual in the parts of its range where it is non-migratory as it is an insectivorous bird that continues to feed on insects during the winter (most other insectivorous birds in temperate climates migrate or switch to more vegetable matter).

Breeding

White wagtails are monogamous and defend breeding territories. The breeding season for most is from April to August, with the season starting later further north. Both sexes are responsible for building the nest, with the male responsible for initiating the nest building and the female for finishing the process. For second broods in the subspecies personata the female alone builds the nest, which is a rough cup assembled from twigs, grass, leaves and other plant matter, as the male is still provisioning the young. It is lined with soft materials, including animal hair. The nest is set into a crevice or hole--traditionally in a bank next to a river or ditch--but the species has also adapted to nesting in walls, bridges and buildings. One nest was found in the skull of a walrus. White wagtails will nest in association with other animals: particularly, where available, the dams of beavers and also inside the nests of golden eagles. Around three to eight eggs are laid, with the usual number being four to six. The eggs are cream-coloured, often with a faint bluish-green or turquoise tint, and heavily spotted with reddish brown; they measure, on average, 21×15 mm (0.83×0.59 inches). Both parents incubate the eggs, although the female generally does so for longer and incubates at night. The eggs begin to hatch after 12 days (sometimes as late as 16 days). Both parents feed the chicks until they fledge at around 14 days, and the chicks are fed for another week after fledging.

Though it is known to be a host species for the common cuckoo, the white wagtail typically deserts its nest if it has been parasitised. Scientists theorise that this occurs because the wagtail is too small to push the intruding egg out of the nest, and too short-billed to destroy the egg by puncturing it.

Status

This species has a large range, with an estimated extent of more than 10 million km2 (3.8 million sq mi). The population size is unknown, but it is believed to be large, as the species is described as "common" in at least parts of its range. Population trends have not been quantified, but the species is not believed to approach the thresholds for the population decline criterion of the IUCN Red List (i.e. declining more than 30% in ten years or three generations). For these reasons, the species is evaluated to be of least concern. The population in Europe appears to be stable. The species has adapted well to human changes to the environment and has exploited human changes such as man-made structures that are used for nesting sites and increased open areas that are used for foraging. In a number of cities, notably Dublin, large flocks gather in winter to roost.

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Scientific classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Aves
Order
Passeriformes
Family
Motacillidae
Genus
Motacilla
Species
Motacilla alba

Subspecies

  • Motacilla alba alba (nominate), Carolus Linnaeus, 1758

    Range: Europe from the Iberian Peninsula to Ural Mountains, Turkey, the Levant, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland's east coast. Some migrate to the south of Europe and Africa down as far as Kenya and Malawi

  • Motacilla alba alboides, Brian Houghton Hodgson, 1836

    Range: Himalayas and surrounding area. This subspecies has a black back and a lot of black around the head, a white wing panel and white edges on the secondaries and tertials.

  • Motacilla alba baicalensis, Robert Swinhoe, 1871

    Range: Russia in Lake Baikal area, Mongolia, Inner Mongolia. Resembles M. a. leucopsis but grey back and less white on head and wing.

  • Motacilla alba dukhunensis, Colonel William Henry Sykes, 1832

    Common name: Indian pied wagtail

    Range: West Siberian Plain – east Caspian Sea (part of Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan), winters in the Middle East and India. Sometimes included in alba. The upperparts of this subspecies are paler and more blue-grey than nominate, and has it has a continuous unbroken white panel on wing coverts.

  • Motacilla alba leucopsis, John Gould, 1838

    Common name: Amur wagtail

    Range: China, Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, Japan (Ryukyu Islands, Kyushu), expanding into Japan (Honshu), Southeast Asia, India, and Oceania

  • Motacilla alba lugens, Constantin Wilhelm Lambert Gloger, 1829

    Common name: Black-backed wagtail, kamchatka/Japanese pied wagtail

    Range: Russia Far East (Primorsky Krai, Khabarovsk Krai), Kamchatka Peninsula, Kuril Islands, Sakhalin, Japan (Hokkaido, Honshu) . Similar to M. a. yarrellii, but has a black eyestripe and white remiges; might have a claim to constitute a distinct species.

  • Motacilla alba ocularis, Robert Swinhoe, 1860

    Range: Siberia, Far Eastern (Russia, eastwards from Central Siberian Plateau) expanding into West Alaska.

  • Motacilla alba persica, William Thomas Blanford, 1876

    Range: North central and western Iran. Intermediate between M. a. dukhunensis and M. a. personata. Often included in alba; appears to be hybrid or intergrade population.

  • Motacilla alba personata, John Gould, 1861

    Common name: Masked wagtail

    Range: Hindu Kush, Tian Shan, Altay Mountains (northern Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Xinjiang). All-black head with a white face mask

  • Motacilla alba subpersonata, Edmund Gustavus Bloomfield Meade-Waldo, 1901

    Common name: Moroccan wagtail

    Range: Non-migratory resident of Morocco. It has more black on the head than the nominate, and resembles a grey-backed, white-throated African pied wagtail

  • Motacilla alba yarrellii, John Gould, 1837

    Common name: Pied wagtail

    Range: Great Britain and Ireland, birds in the northern part of the range winter in Spain and North Africa, those further south are resident. Has a much blacker back than the nominate race, black of throat continues on side of neck

Conservation status

Least Concern (IUCN3.1)

Least Concern (IUCN3.1)

Distribution map of White wagtail, Motacilla alba in Thailand
  • Ban Phai District, Khon Kaen
  • Bang Ban District, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya
  • Bang Pa In District, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya
  • Bang Phra Non-hunting Area
  • Bang Pu Recreation Centre
  • Bangkok Province
  • Borabue District, Maha Sarakham
  • Bueng Boraped Non-hunting Area
  • Chae Son National Park
  • Chiang Dao District, Chiang Mai
  • Chiang Dao Wildlife Sanctuary
  • Chiang Khong District, Chiang Rai
  • Chiang Saen District, Chiang Rai
  • Chum Ta Bong District, Nakhon Sawan
  • Doi Inthanon National Park
  • Doi Lo District, Chiang Mai
  • Doi Pha Hom Pok National Park
  • Doi Phu Kha National Park
  • Doi Suthep-Pui National Park
  • Doi Tao District, Chiang Mai
  • Fang District, Chiang Mai
  • Hang Chat District, Lampang
  • Huai Chorakhe Mak Reservoir Non-hunting Area
  • Huai Nam Dang National Park
  • Kabin Buri District, Prachinburi
  • Kaeng Khoi District, Saraburi
  • Kanthararom District, Sisaket
  • Kantharawichai District, Maha Sarakham
  • Kaset Sombun District, Chaiyaphum
  • Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park
  • Khao Yai National Park
  • Khemarat District, Ubon Ratchathani
  • Khon San District, Chaiyaphum
  • Khun Chae National Park
  • Khun Korn Forest Park
  • Khun Nan National Park
  • Khun Tan District, Chiang Rai
  • Kumphawapi District, Udon Thani
  • Laem Pak Bia
  • Lam Nam Kok National Park
  • Lan Sak District, Uthai Thani
  • Mae Ai District, Chiang Mai
  • Mae Chan District, Chiang Rai
  • Mae Charim National Park
  • Mae Mo District, Lampang
  • Mae Ping National Park
  • Mae Rim District, Chiang Mai
  • Mae Sot District, Tak
  • Mae Taeng District, Chiang Mai
  • Mae Wong National Park
  • Mu Ko Surin National Park
  • Mueang Chaiyaphum District, Chaiyaphum
  • Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai
  • Mueang Chiang Rai District, Chiang Rai
  • Mueang Kamphaeng Phet District, Kamphaeng Phet
  • Mueang Khon Kaen District, Khon Kaen
  • Mueang Lampang District, Lampang
  • Mueang Lamphun District, Lamphun
  • Mueang Nan District, Nan
  • Mueang Nong Khai District, Nong Khai
  • Mueang Nonthaburi District, Nonthaburi
  • Mueang Pan District, Lampang
  • Mueang Pathum Thani District, Pathum Thani
  • Mueang Phayao District, Phayao
  • Mueang Phetchabun District, Phetchabun
  • Mueang Phitsanulok District, Phitsanulok
  • Mueang Phuket District, Phuket
  • Mueang Samut Sakhon District, Samut Sakhon
  • Mueang Samut Songkhram District, Samut Songkhram
  • Mueang Sukhothai District, Sukhothai
  • Mueang Suphanburi District, Suphan Buri
  • Mueang Tak District, Tak
  • Mueang Udon Thani District, Udon Thani
  • Mueang Uttaradit District, Uttaradit
  • Nam Nao National Park
  • Non Sang District, Nong Bua Lamphu
  • Nong Bong Khai Non-hunting Area
  • Nong Song Hong District, Khon Kaen
  • Nong Waeng Non-hunting Area
  • Nong Ya Plong District, Phetchaburi
  • Ob Khan National Park
  • Pa Sang District, Lamphun
  • Pai District, Mae Hong Son
  • Pha Daeng National Park
  • Pha Taem National Park
  • Phan District, Chiang Rai
  • Phanat Nikhom District, Chonburi
  • Phimai District, Nakhon Ratchasima
  • Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya District, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya
  • Phu Chi Fa Forest Park
  • Phu Foi Lom National Park
  • Phu Hin Rong Kla National Park
  • Phu Khiao District, Chaiyaphum
  • Phu Khiao Wildlife Sanctuary
  • Phu Kradueng National Park
  • Rattanawapi District, Nong Khai
  • Sai Yok National Park
  • Salak Pra Wildlife Sanctuary
  • Salawin National Park
  • Samut Prakan Province
  • San Sai District, Chiang Mai
  • Sanam Bin Reservoir Non-hunting Area
  • Santi Suk District, Nan
  • Satuek District, Buriram
  • Si Satchanalai District, Sukhothai
  • Si Satchanalai National Park
  • Taksin Maharat National Park
  • Taphan Hin District, Phichit
  • Tha Yang District, Phetchaburi
  • Thanyaburi District, Pathum Thani
  • Thong Pha Phum National Park
  • Wang Saphung District, Loei
  • Wiang Chai District, Chiang Rai
  • Wiang Kaen District, Chiang Rai

Range map of Motacilla alba in Thailand

Important note; our range maps are based on limited data we have collected. The data is not necessarily accurate or complete.

Special thanks to Ton Smits, Parinya Pawangkhanant, Ian Dugdale and many others for their contribution for range data.

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