The pied wagtail is almost, but not quite, an exclusively British bird. Some pied wagtails also nest on the adjoining coasts of France and Holland.
On the Continent the white wagtail replaces the pied. It is a race of the same species, and has a pale grey rather than black back.
White wagtails sometimes nest in southern England, occasionally hybridising with pied wagtails.
Pied wagtails don’t nest in the Channel Islands, but white wagtails have recently started breeding there.
Few groups of birds have as confusing names as the three British wagtails. In the winter a pied wagtail would be more aptly named a grey wagtail, while the latter species sports a splash of bright yellow that prompts many to think that it is really a yellow wagtail.
Few birds have as many country names as the pied wagtail. They range from Polly washdish and dishwasher to the more familiar Penny wagtail, Willy wagtail and water wagtail.
The origin of the washer names is a mystery, but it may be because women once washed clothes, as well as pot and pans, by a stream or village pump, the sort of place that pied wagtails also frequent.
No one knows why wagtails wag their tails. The poet John Clare caught the bird’s gait well: Little trotty wagtail, he went in the rain. And tittering, tottering sideways he near got straight again.
Though pied wagtails are resident in Britain they don’t like cold weather. In severe winters large numbers will join together and roost communally in towns.
Buckingham Place supports a wagtail roost.
The biggest wagtail roosts may hold as many as 4,000 individuals.
The pied/white wagtails are the most widespread breeding birds in Europe, breeding everywhere from Iceland and arctic Norway south to Andalucia and Sicily.
Such widespread breeding is an indication of this wagtail’s adaptability, for it is just as happy in high mountain valleys as city centres.
These wagtails also nest right across Asia as far east as The Bering Sea. They occasionally wander to Alaska, whey they are a rarity sought-after by American birders.
In Britain, many pairs of pied wagtails nest in close proximity to man, favouring holes in walls, gaps under roof tiles and similar spaces. They particularly like farmyards.
Numbers of pied wagtails in Britain are on the increase.
Each pair of wagtails will usually try and nest two or three times during the summer.
Though the pied wagtails in southern Britain are largely sedentary, northern populations migrate considerable distances.
At migration watch points in Britain there is a pronounced spring and autumn passage of wagtails.
Though almost exclusively insectivorous, some wagtails show a liking for cake crumbs.
Cock wagtails aren’t great singers: their song is best described as a plain and simple series of chirping notes.