Motacillidaepipits and wagtails(Also: wagtails, pipits, and longclaws)


Pipits and wagtails are in the order Passeriformes and family Motacillidae. The family Motacillidae is one of the most widespread in the world and is divided into six genera. Three genera are found in the Holarctic: Anthus (pipits), Motacilla (wagtails) and Dendronanthus (forest wagtail). Three are found only in Africa: Hemimacronyx (yellow-breasted pipit (H. chloris), and sharpe's longclaw (H. sharpei)), Tmetothylacus (golden pipit (T. tenellus)) and Macronyx (longclaws)). There are 54 to 58 species of Motacillidae, some of which interbreed.

Pipits and wagtails are small to medium sized birds with long, slim bodies and long tails (which they often bob up and down, especially while foraging). Pipits are quite drab; they have brown plumage with streaking on the breast. It is difficult to identify different species of pipits in the field. Wagtails, on the other hand, often have bright summer plumage with white, black, gray, yellow and green feathers. Sexes are dimorphic in wagtails but not pipits.

Motacillids are insectivores and are found in open and semi-open habitat. They have a worldwide distribution and are even found in Antarctica. (Alstrom and Mild, 2003; Badyaev and Hendricks, 2001; )

Geographic Range

Pipits and wagtails have a worldwide distribution. However, most species are found in Eurasia and Africa. Forty-six percent of pipit and wagtail species are found in Africa, 21 percent in Asia and 16 percent in the New World, Africa and Eurasia. (Alstrom and Mild, 2003; Campbell and Lack, 1985; Cramp, et al., 1988; Simms, 1992)


Pipits and wagtails can be found in a variety of habitats from temperate to tropical and polar regions. They prefer open and semi-open habitat, and although two species can be found in forest glades, they usually avoid dense woodland. Suitable habitat includes: shrubland, savanna, tundra, dunes, salt marshes, desert, rocky shorelines, roadsides, creeksides, agricultural fields and urban areas.

They are known to breed in suitable habitat from sea level to 4500 m and have been seen as high as 6000 m on Mt. Everest during migration. (Alstrom and Mild, 2003; Badyaev and Hendricks, 2001; Campbell and Lack, 1985; Fry, et al., 1992; ; Simms, 1992)

Physical Description

Pipits and wagtails are small to medium sized birds (14 to 21 cm, 12 to 50 g) with long tails (especially wagtails), bodies, legs and claws (reaching up to 4 cm in some species of longclaw). They have thin, pointed bills with a small hump above the nostril. Sexes are of similar size, but males may be slightly larger and/or have longer wings.

Although they are structurally similar, pipits and wagtails differ dramatically in their plumage. With the exception of two species that have yellow plumage, pipits tend to be cryptic, with brown feathers and streaking above and on the breast. During the breeding season, male wagtails can have white, gray, yellow, green and black feathers. Male and female wagtails are dimorphic in plumage; both females and juveniles tend to have less coloration than males and their plumage resembles male winter plumage. Pipits show no sexual dimorphism in plumage. (Alstrom and Mild, 2003; Badyaev and Hendricks, 2001; Campbell and Lack, 1985; ; Simms, 1992; Wood, 1985)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • male larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful


For the most part, pipits and wagtails are monogamous. However, polygyny and extra pair copulations do occur. The birds usually form pairs as soon as they reach their breeding grounds. The same pairs may nest together season to season. Pipits and wagtails are territorial and defend their nest site by singing from perches and performing song flights. Bill raising and wing vibration are also used during displays. In addition, some pipits exhibit courtship feeding. (Alstrom and Mild, 2003; Badyaev and Hendricks, 2001; ; Simms, 1992; Wood, 1985)

Breeding in pipits and wagtails coincides with prey abundance. Nest building takes 4 to 20 days; nests are often placed on the ground, in trees, or in cavities in banks, cliffs, buildings or walls. Nests are usually protected by rocks and vegetation or are placed in a small hole or excavated cavity. They are cup shaped and made of grass, willow, bark, lichen, moss, leaves and twigs. Nests may be lined with grass, fur, feathers and rootlets, and are sometimes held together with mud. Some pipits build domed nests.

Clutch size is usually 4 to 7 for wagtails and 3 to 7 for pipits (usually five). Eggs are 13 to 16 by 17 to 21 mm and are white to light green to dark olive with dark spots. Incubation lasts 10 to 15 days. Only female pipits incubate, although males bring females food while they are on the nest. Both male and female wagtails incubate, but females spend more time on the eggs than males. Hatching is synchronous and the altricial young are brooded for 5 to 6 days. Both adults feed the nestlings and remove fecal sacks. Young are primarily fed insects. Fledging occurs after 12 to 15 days, but the chicks may leave as early as 9 days after hatching if the nest is disturbed. Chicks often leave the nest before they can fly, and they continue to be fed by their parents for 14 to 18 days.

Nest success is 50 to 65 percent. Failure may be caused by depredation or trampling by livestock and game. If the first nest attempt fails, the birds will re-nest. Pipit and wagtail nests are also parasitized by cuckoos (Cuculidae). (Ali and Ripley, 1973; Alstrom and Mild, 2003; Bent, 1950; Fry, et al., 1992; Simms, 1992; Campbell, et al., 1997; Wood, 1985)

Female pipits do all of the incubating and brooding of chicks (males help in wagtails). Incubation lasts 10 to 15 days and the altricial chicks are brooded for about 5 to 6 days after hatching. Chicks are fed insects by both parents. Adults also remove fecal sacks from the nests. Chicks leave the nest 12 to 15 days after hatching. Nestlings usually fledge before they can fly and continue to receive parental care for 14 to 18 days.

If a predator approaches an active nest, the adults give alarm calls and will often feign injury to draw the predator away. (Alstrom and Mild, 2003; Badyaev and Hendricks, 2001; ; Simms, 1992)


Like most small birds, pipits and wagtails probably live on average only two to five years. The longest recorded lifespan is a 9 year, 11 month old white wagtail (Motacilla alba). Average annual adult mortality for Palearctic species is 34 to 65 percent. (Badyaev and Hendricks, 2001; Gill, 1995; )


Some pipits and wagtails are solitary, and others are gregarious. Many species are solitary during breeding but will flock during the non-breeding season. They are mainly terrestrial, but will perch on rocks, shrubs and trees. They are territorial during the breeding season and defend their territories using song and display flights. Song flights are more developed in pipits than wagtails; they last from 30 seconds to 40 minutes and the male can reach up to 90 meters in height. Wagtails often sing from bushes or tussocks and while in flight. The birds walk rather than hop along the ground are known to pump or wag their tails up and down as they forage. Both pipits and wagtails have an undulating flight pattern.

Most pipits and wagtails are migratory, although some southern species may be residents. The birds can double their weight before beginning migration and some species of wagtail cross the Sahara non-stop during migration.

Pipits of the genus Anthus will apply ants to their plumage for cleaning, a behavior called anting. Both pipits and wagtails bathe in shallow standing water. They also undergo a complete molt after breeding and a partial molt before breeding. (Alstrom and Mild, 2003; Badyaev and Hendricks, 2001; Cramp, et al., 1988; Fry, et al., 1992; ; Simms, 1992; Wood, 1985)

Communication and Perception

Pipits and wagtails communicate through song and visual displays. Songs are short and simple in some species and complex and extensive in others.

Communal roosting is thought to facilitate information sharing about the location of food sources. (Alstrom and Mild, 2003; Campbell and Lack, 1985)

Food Habits

Pipits and wagtails are primarily insectivores although they sometimes eat seeds, berries and other prey. Their prey are diverse and include: Diptera (true flies), Hemiptera (true bugs), Coleoptera (beetles), Orthoptera (grasshoppers), Isoptera (termites), Hymenoptera (wasps), Araneae (spiders), Formicidae (ants), Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), Ephemeroptera (mayflies), Neuroptera (lacewings), Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies), Trichoptera (caddisflies), Plecoptera (stoneflies), Crustacea (crustaceans), Actinopterygii (fish), Annelida (worms) and Mollusca (molluscs).

Pipits and wagtails usually forage on the ground, but will occasionally catch aerial insects. They also forage in shallow water for aquatic invertebrates and catch insects on foliage or near the surface of water. Tail length affects the birds’ maneuverability and therefore their ability to catch insects in flight; species with longer tails tend to do more fly catching. Wagtails sometimes forage alongside of groups of cattle, sheep and wild ungulates. These animals stir up insects and make it easier for the birds to find and catch them. (Alstrom and Mild, 2003; Badyaev and Hendricks, 2001; Campbell and Lack, 1985; Fry, et al., 1992; ; Simms, 1992; Verbeek and Hendricks, 1994; Wood, 1985)


Adult pipits and wagtails have a number of avian predators among the falcons and hawks (Falconiformes) and owls (Strigiformes). Chicks and eggs (and occasionally adults) are also taken by mammals. Common mammalian predators include: weasels (Mustelinae), squirrels (Sciruidae), mice (Rodentia) and house cats (Felis domesticus).

In response to nest predators, incubating females will flush when the predator approaches; if the predator is close to the nest she will feign injury or give other displays to draw it away. Young pipits and wagtails fledge early if the nest is disturbed, this is presumably a response to decrease nest depredation. Foraging in flocks is also thought to be an adaptation to reduce predation. Pipits and female wagtails also have cryptic plumage. (Bent, 1950; Cramp, et al., 1988; Simms, 1992; Verbeek and Hendricks, 1994)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

As insectivores, pipits and wagtails affect insect populations throughout their range. They are also hosts to parasitic cuckoos (Cuculidae).

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Pipits and wagtails can be important agents in the control of insect pests.

  • Positive Impacts
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse affects of pipits and wagtails on humans.

Conservation Status

The IUCN lists no species of pipits or wagtails as critically endangered, two as endangered, three as vulnerable and five as near threatened. Most of the North American species are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. No pipits or wagtails are listed by CITES or ESA.

The main threats to pipits and wagtails are habitat loss and fragmentation, introduced species and changes in native species dynamics. Some species of pipits and wagtails benefit from increased development and land clearing. However, they become more susceptible to nest predation as edge habitat increases, and they often lose nests to livestock. In addition, while the clearing of forests increases habitat for pipits and wagtails, the draining of wetlands and reversion of farmland to forest decreases habitat. Pipits that breed in the arctic and alpine seem to suffer little from human disturbance. However, climate change is predicted to change tree lines and increase habitat fragmentation, which may have negative effects on pipit populations. ("UNEP-WCMC Species Database: CITES-Listed Species", 2003; Badyaev and Hendricks, 2001; IUCN, 2002; ; Threatened and Endangered Species System, 2003; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, date unknown; Verbeek and Hendricks, 1994)

  • IUCN Red List [Link]
    Not Evaluated


Alaine Camfield (author), Animal Diversity Web, Kari Kirschbaum (editor), Animal Diversity Web.



lives on Antarctica, the southernmost continent which sits astride the southern pole.


Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

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living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

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living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

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living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

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living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

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uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


having a worldwide distribution. Found on all continents (except maybe Antarctica) and in all biogeographic provinces; or in all the major oceans (Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific.


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


union of egg and spermatozoan


an animal that mainly eats fruit


an animal that mainly eats seeds


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


a distribution that more or less circles the Arctic, so occurring in both the Nearctic and Palearctic biogeographic regions.

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Found in northern North America and northern Europe or Asia.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.

internal fertilization

fertilization takes place within the female's body


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males


marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


eats mollusks, members of Phylum Mollusca


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals


found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

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reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


an animal that mainly eats fish


the regions of the earth that surround the north and south poles, from the north pole to 60 degrees north and from the south pole to 60 degrees south.


having more than one female as a mate at one time

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


lives alone


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


A terrestrial biome with low, shrubby or mat-like vegetation found at extremely high latitudes or elevations, near the limit of plant growth. Soils usually subject to permafrost. Plant diversity is typically low and the growing season is short.


living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.


uses sight to communicate


2003. "UNEP-WCMC Species Database: CITES-Listed Species" (On-line). Accessed November 14, 2003 at

Ali, S., D. Ripley. 1973. Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan, Vol. 9. London: Oxford University Press.

Alstrom, P., K. Mild. 2003. Pipits and Wagtails. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Badyaev, A., P. Hendricks. 2001. Wagtails and Pipits. Pp. 479-484 in C Elphick, J Dunning, D Sibley, eds. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Bent, A. 1950. Life Histories of North American Wagtails, Shrikes, Vireos, and Their Allies. Washington: United States Government Printing Office.

Campbell, B., E. Lack. 1985. A Dictionary of Birds. Vermillion: Buteo Books.

Campbell, R., N. Dawe, I. McTaggart-Cowan, J. Cooper, G. Kaiser, C. McNall, G. Smith. 1997. The Birds of British Columbia, Volume 3. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Cramp, S., D. Brooks, E. Dunn, R. Gillmor, J. Hall-Craggs, P. Hollom, E. Nicholson, M. Ogilvie, C. Roselaar, P. Sellar, K. Simmons, K. Voous, D. Wallace, M. Wilson. 1988. Handbook of The Birds of Europe the Middle East and North Africa: The Birds of the Western Palearctic, Volume V, Tyrant Flycatchers to Thrushes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fry, C., D. Pearson, P. Taylor. 1992. Motacillidae, wagtails, pipits and longclaws. Pp. 197-262 in S Keith, E Urban, C Fry, eds. The Birds of Africa, Vol. IV. London: Academic Press.

Gill, F. 1995. Ornithology, Second Edition. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

IUCN, 2002. "The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species" (On-line). Accessed November 10, 2003 at

Payne, R. 2003. "Bird Families of the World" (On-line). Accessed November 10, 2003 at

Sibley, C., J. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds, A study in Molecular Evolution. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Simms, E. 1992. British Larks, Pipits & Wagtails. London: Harper Collins Publishers.

Threatened and Endangered Species System, 2003. "U.S. Listed Vertebrate Animal Species Report by Taoxonomic Group" (On-line). Accessed November 14, 2003 at

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, date unknown. "Birds Protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act" (On-line). Accessed November 14, 2003 at

Verbeek, N., P. Hendricks. 1994. American Pipit (Anthus rubescens). A Poole, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 95. The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologist's Union, Washington, D.C.

Wood, B. 1985. Larks, Wagtails and Pipits. Pp. 336-341 in C Perrins, A Middleton, eds. The Encyclopedia of Birds. New York: Facts on File Publications.