Yellow wagtail Moticilla flava. Image courtesy of WikiAnika CC BY-SA 3.0 License.

Yellow wagtail a bird of conservation concern

The yellow wagtail, Motacilla flava,race flavissima belongs to the family Motacillidae in the order Passeriformes.

The rapid decline in the population number of this a most handsome of summer visitors to breed in Britain, has alarm bells ringing in bird conservation circles. {See conservation status below.}

It is a member of the wagtail family, named after the way they  characteristically flick their tails up and down,  is often mistaken for the grey wagtail which is superficially similar having yellow in its plumage. So I shall start this review with a description of the Yellow wagtail.

Description of the Yellow Wagtail.

The bright yellow breast and upper parts, along with the olive green tinge in the wings and back distinguish the yellow wagtail from the commoner grey wagtail. They also have a green crown with a yellow stripe and two white wing bars. The blackish tail has white edges. 

The male in summer is an elegant, colourful and distinctive member of the feathered fraternity. However, autumn birds, especially juveniles are easy to mistake for other species. Unlike other wagtails this species is never seen in Europe {including Britain} during winter for it migrates to Africa to feed among grazing herds on the tropical grasslands.

The birds are 17cm long with a wingspan of 25cm. The weight of both sexes is around 18g.

                                                     IN THE FIELD 

Yellow and grey wagtails are the only two predominantly yellow birds with longish tails. Several races of yellow occur on migration, and breeding cocks are the easiest to distinguish. yellow wagtail has has top of the head  and ear coverts greenish yellow and eye stripe, chin, throat and sides of neck are brilliant yellow.

The grey wagtail has a plumage which consists of blue grey above with yellow rump and yellow beneath; They have white outer tail feathers. The breeding cock has black chin {gorget}. The bill is thin and of a greyish black colour.  The legs are flesh brown.

The legs of the yellow wagtail are black. In relation to the yellow wagtail's body the wings are medium/short tail is medium to long, neck short, bill short and legs medium.

The flight is markedly dipping. They run and walk, frequently moving the tail up and down. 

Top the grey wagtail Motacilla cinerea courtesy of Kclama Creative Commons Share alike. Below the yellow wagtail courtesy of Andreas trepte-www..photo-nature.de

Lifestyle and breeding

Yellow wagtails are primarily insect eaters and their main prey items include flies, bugs , arachnids, and beetles, though flies are the main food. They tend to feed by two means. They may pick up food from the ground and water surface while walking. Alternatively they may partake in " fly catching" in which the bird makes short flights from the ground or a perch and catch prey in mid air in the manner of a fly catcher, or knocking prey down to the ground with their wings.

Although traditionally thought of as a bird of wet grassland, yellow wagtails breed in a variety of habitat in Britain, including relatively dry arable land, heath and moorland and even around mineral extraction workings.

The nest is located on the ground in grass or other vegetation and is constructed of roots and grasses, hay or and moss, lined with hair and feathers. it is loosely woven together, but is always difficult to find.

The eggs are thickly speckled with pale brown on a creamy back ground, with at times a slender scrawled streak or two of black. Five to six eggs form the clutch. the eggs are incubated for around 14 days. Fledging occurs at around 13-15 days. the first clutch is usually laid in May. There may be another clutch laid in the summer.

The age at first breeding is one year. The typical lifespan of the yellow wagtail in the wild is 3 years. On arable land they may well locate the nest in crops such as oil seed rape, pea and beans or potatoes. They also may be encountered in spring sown cereal crops.

During the autumn as they fatten up for migration they may form small family flocks or small parties. On migration they often form mixed flocks with other species of wagtails 

Yellow wagtails--courtesy of Frank Dawber

Oil seed rape is a suitable nesting location for some yellow wagtails.

Conservation issues.

In the not to distant past yellow wagtails were widespread and common in the upland meadows and pastures of the Yorkshire dales and northern Pennines. However, the last ten years in particular has shown a serious decline in these regions. { In common with other parts of the country}

Once again it seems to have been a change in land use which includes the change to silage making rather than the traditional method of hay making. Grass for silage is cut earlier than that for hay and nestlings may well fall victim to the uncompromising blades.

Wet meadows and marshy feeding areas have also been lost to land drainage, and the use of intensive cattle and sheep grazing may also cause fatalities to nestlings by them being trampled on. However, some conservationists believe that many of these birds could now have move to arable land where crops are grown giving them some security for their nests.

Britain holds almost the entire population of the distinctive race flavissama , thus population changes in Britain are of a global conservation significance. They have been in decline here since the 1980s and after a shift from the Green list of Conservation concern they where moved to the Amber list in 2002. One of the criteria for being placed on the Amber list is that there has been a decline in population/distribution numbers of over 25% in the last 30 years or so.

Recently they have now been placed on the Red list of Conservation Concern making them a Priority species within the UK.BAP. {Biodiversity Action Plan}. The main criteria for this list is that there have been declines in population/distribution numbers of over 50% in the last 30 years or so.

The estimated population for the bird in Britain was between 19,000 and 22,000 territories in the year 2000.

Little is known about their winter feeding grounds in Africa and what affect this has on population numbers.

A Species Action Plan  {SAP} has been formulated and is currently being implemented in the hope of reversing the decline the birds have suffered.

Other races of wagtails---

Other races of wagtail sometimes occur in Britain as passing migrants such as the blue headed, grey headed and white wagtails. The latter is similar in plumage to the native pied wagtail. 

Reuse of images.

The images on this page may be reused. However, the name of the relevant author must be attributed along with any accompanying license.

There is now an in depth 2,500+ word article on the Yellow Wagtail  by myself on the following link. dal.hubpages.com/hub/Yellow-Wagtail-Birds-of-Europe.  or by the shortened hub.me/ajrv5.

The above article contains images/videos,along with historical noted and observations from past ornithologists and other eminent writers. 

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LINKS---Click on the B.T.O. website link.

SONG THRUSH--Another priority species.

Grey partridge--Priority species

Barn owl --priority species

Lapwing --priority specie




Also see Birds via links banner { Birds of Europe} in depth articles with notes from past ornithologists and other eminent writers .

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