Wednesday, July 24, 2013


W had to be for WILLY WAGTAIL.

The Willy Wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys) is a passerine bird native to Australia, New Guinea. te Solomon Islands, the Bismarck Archipelago and eastern Indonesia.  It is a common and familiar bird throughout much of its range, living in most habitats apart from thick forest.

The adult Willy Wagtail is between 19-21.5 cm (7.-8.5 in) in length and weighs 17-24 gm (0.6-0.85 oz), with a tail 10-11 cm (approx 4 in) long.  The short, slender bill measures 1.64-1.93 cm (around 0.75 in) and is tipped with a small hook.  This species has longer legs than other fantails, which may be an adaptation  to foraging on the ground.  The male and female have similar plumage, the head, throat, upper breast, wings, upperparts, and tail are all black, with a white eyebrow, 'whiskers' and underparts. The bill and legs are black and the iris dark brown.

Immature birds (see below) in their first year after moulting from juvenile plumage may have pale tips in their wings, while juvenile birds themselves have duller plumage, their upperparts brown-tinged with some pale brown scallops on the head and breast.

The Willie Wagtail is insectivorous and spends much time chasing prey in open habitat. Its common name is derived from its habit of wagging its tail horizontally when foraging on the ground.  Aggressive and territorial, the Willie Wagtail will often harass much larger birds such as the Kookaburra and Wedge-tailed eagle.  Here he sees a crow on its way.

The Willy Wagtail has responded well to human alteration of the landscape and is a common sight in urban lawns, parks and gardens.  It was widely featured in aboriginal folklore around the country as either a bringer of bad news or a stealer of secrets.

The Wagtail is very 'chatty' and has a number of distinct vocalisations.  Its most recognised sound is its alarm call which is a rapid chit-chit-chit-chit although it has more melodious sounds in its repertoire. The alarm call is sounded to warn of potential rivals and threats from its territory and also seems to serve as a signal to its mate when a potential threat is in the area.  John Gould reported that it sounded like a child's rattle or "small cog-wheels of a steam mill".  In his book What Bird is That? (1935) Neville Cayley writes that it has "a pleasant call resembling a 'sweet pretty little creature', frequently uttered during the day or night, especially on moonlight nights".

The Willy Wagtail is almost always on the move and rarely still for more than a few moments during daylight hours.  Even while perching it will flick its tail from side to side, twisting about looking for prey.  Birds are mostly encountered singly or in pairs although may gather in small flocks.  Unlike other fantails, much of its time is spent on the ground.  It beats its wings deeply in flight, interspersed with a swift flying dip.  It characteristically wags it tail upon landing after a short dipping flight.

Willy Wagtails usually pair for life.  The breeding season lasts from July to December, more often occurring after rain in drier regions.  Anywhere up to four broods may be raised during this time  It builds a cup-like nest on a tree branch away from leaves or cover. less than 5m (16 ft) above the ground.  Rafters and eaves may also be used.  It is not afraid to build near human habitation.

The nest consists of grass stems, strips of bark, and other fibrous material which is bound and woven together with spider web.  Even hair from pet dogs and cats can be used.  It has also been observed taking hair from a pet goat.  (Or even from a kangaroo it would seem).
(I can remember when horses and carts were used to deliver milk, bread and ice years ago seeing Willy Wagtails diving on the horses trying to steal their hair for nest making).

The female lays two to four cream-white eggs with brownish markings and incubates them for 14 days.

Like all passerines, the chicks are altricial and nidicolous; they are born naked and helpless with closed eyes, and remain in the nest.  Both parents take part in feeding their young, and may continue to do so while embarking on another brood.  Nestlings remain in the nest for around 14 days before fledging.

Upon leaving, the fledglings will remain hidden in cover nearby for one or two days before venturing further afield, up to 20 m (60 ft) away by the third day.  Parents will stop feeding their fledglings near the end of the second week, as the young birds increasingly forage for themselves, and soon afterwards drive them out of the territory.

Although generally a peaceful bird, which lives quite happily alongside humans, the Willie Wagtail will defend its nest aggressively.  Willie Wagtails are known to swoop at passers by much like the Australian Magpie.  While attacks from Wlllie Wagtails are not common or as formidable as the Magpie, they do come as a great shock to recipients.  (I can say I have never been swooped by a Willy Wagtail).

The Willie Wagtail was a feature of Australian aboriginal folklore  Aboriginal tribes in parts of southeastern Australia, such as the Ngarrindjeri of the Lower Murray River, and the Narrunga People of the Yorke Peninsula regard the Willie Wagtail as the bearer of bad news.  It was thought that the Willie Wagtail could steal a person's secrets while lingering around camps eavesdropping, so women would be tight-lipped in the presence of the Willie Wagtail.  The people of the Kimberly in Western Australia held a similar belief that it would inform the spirit of the recently departed if living relative spoke badly of them.  They also venerated the Willie Wagtail as the most intelligent of all animals.  Its cleverness is also seen in the Tinputz tale of Bougainville Island, where Singsing Tongereng (Willie Wagtail) wins a contest among all birds to see who can fly the highest by riding on the back of the eagle.   However, the Gunwinggu in western Arnhem Land took a dimmer view and regarded it as a liar and a tattletale.  He was held to have stolen fire and tried to extinguish it in the seas in a Dreaming story of the Yindjibarndi people of the central western Pilbara in Western Australia, and was able to send  a strong wind if frightened.

The Kalam people of the New Guinea highlands called it Konmayd, and deemed it a good bird; if it came a chattered when a new garden is tilled then the there will be good crops.  It is said to be taking care of pigs if it is darting and calling around them.  It may also be the manifestation of the ghost of paternal relatives to the Kalam.  Called the Kuritoro bird in New Guineas's eastern highlands, it appearance was significant in the mourning ceremony by a widow for her dead husband.  She would offer him banana flowers and the presence of the bird singing nearby would confirm that the dead man's soul had taken the offering.

A tale from the Kieta district of Bougainville Island relates that Maneka, the Willie Wagtail darting along a river bank echoes a legendary daughter looking for her mother who drowned trying to cross a river flooding in a storm.  The bird has been depicted on postage stamps in Palau and the Solomon Islands, and has appeared as a character in Australian children's literature, such as Dot and the Kangaroo (1899),  Blinky Bill Grows Up (1935) and Willie Wagtail and Other Tales (1929).

This is a very long post but I am sure other Aussies love our Willie Wagtail as much as we in the West do so I just needed to find out all I could about them and I was quite impressed by all the folk lore that abounds about this cheerful little bird.

P.S.  Back in the 1940s we had an infestation of Argentine ants throughout Perth and its suburbs so extensive spraying with dieldrin took place.  We noticed that all grasshoppers and similar species disappeared and with them went the Willy Wagtails.  It is only in the past 5 or so years that the Willy Wagtails have made their way back to the coast and we now delight in seeing them once again flitting around our lawns and gardens.  Still very few, if any, grasshoppers to be seen, but the birds have obviously managed to find other food to their liking.  It is a huge welcome back to the little wagtails.


  1. They are delightful birds. I haven't seen more than a very occasional one in years - which is a sadness.
    Thank you for this beautiful, informative post.

  2. I am so glad you enjoyed this one EC. Took a while to gather all the info and pics but I so enjoyed doing it as I love these little charmers. It took up to 60 years to have them back down here nearer the coast and they are really welcome. As we drive around our suburb we still say "Oh look! There's a willy." I'm not sure if they're right down to the actual coast but I hope they are.

  3. I LOVE willy wagtails! There is one that hops around on my path and lawn for a few months then disappears until the next year. There are a few in the Adelaide Parklands, mostly around the olive groves.

  4. You have to love them don't you? They are just sooooo gorgeous.