Keeping & Breeding Pied Wagtails 

Keeping And Breeding Pied Wagtails

By Dave Wettner

Image description

 The Pied Wagtail Motacilla alba yarelli is a familiar British bird found in a variety of habitats , including towns, across the UK and is especially associated with wetland habitats, it is a sub species of the White wagtail Motacilla alba. The pied is more common in the UK and the
white across continental Europe


It's distinctive black and white plumage and constantly wagging tail make it easily recognisable. There are estimated to be over 270,000 breeding pairs in the UK (RSPB) and they can often be seen in large roosts during the winter in towns and cities.

There is a often  large roost of several hundred birds in a small tree outside my local supermarket  which under the street lighting resembles a highly decorated Christmas tree - a great sight!
Pied wagtails are reasonably well available in aviculture and make excellent aviary subjects, whilst not as colourful as some other birds their contrasting black and white plumage is very attractive and they prove to be lively and entertaining birds in captivity.

Pied wagtails are classed as softbills and are fairly well available to breeders. They are probably one of the easier British softbills to breed in captivity and as such make a good species for the beginner.

Generally it is reasonably easy to differentiate between the sexes, especially in the Spring/Summer when the birds are coming into breeding condition.

The main difference is in the cap and back: the cocks back and cap turn black and the females have a blackish cap with some more grey and a greyish back. However, this is not always fool proof as, with some other species, well coloured hens and poor coloured cocks exist.

Another confusing factor is that crosses between pied and white wagtails exist in captivity which may give paler and greyer looking cock birds!  But, generally a cock pied wagtail will develop a totally black head and back in breeding condition. They can also be sexed by the singing of the cock bird, which is a subtle and not very strident song....but one that will start to be sung by the cocks leading up to breeding
in Spring.




I keep my wagtails in flights of a 6ft x 3ft x 3ft  minimum size throughout the year. Although some people do keep their birds caged inside during the months and especially if the birds are planned to be exhibited. I'm sure they could easily be bred in smaller flights. But as with most birds the bigger the flight area the better.

Natural perches such as apple or hazel branches in the flight are ideal. The addition of some larger branches laid on the aviary floor and some clear areas on the floor will enable the birds to spend time walking around the floor of the flight. Decorating with a couple of small shrubs in tubs and possibly some climbing plants growing up the wire will help to provide cover and  attract insects into the aviary.


I prefer to use bark chippings on the aviary floor, again for the beneficial insects it will inevitably contain.

Wagtails have an affinity with water so adding a large water dish or small water feature is beneficial I feel. The birds will bathe on a regular basis and enjoy the insects a water feature attracts!


My wagtails are fed on a universal softbill mix to which I add grated broccoli
and carrot several times a week and occasionally I add some grated mild cheese.
They will also eat canary egg food mixed in with the softbill food.  I give each bird around six  meal worms every day even throughout the
winter months. The live food content of their diet is increased towards the
breeding season in April  and
significantly increased and varied when they have young. Spiders, caterpillars,
flies and aphids are all readily taken.

From early Spring on I mix some multi vitamin powder with calcium to the food
mix twice a week.




I now keep my wagtails together all year round and let them
breed when they are ready to do so. Although, some breeders will pair the birds
in the Spring when they come into condition. They generally have a reputation for
being easy to pair, although this is not always the case and some birds can be
aggressive. I have had cock wagtails killed by the hen when paired up in the
Spring and the cock birds are capable of killing the hens. As with other
species it is important to watch your birds and get to know them. Providing two
water and food vessels will help to reduce conflict and prevent one bird
dominating the resources.

I put up 2 or 3 nest sites in the flight at various heights. These are open
fronted boxes (robin type), which the birds take to  without any cover around them. Wagtails will
also nest on shelves, spaces between rocks and other such cavities.

Dry grasses, coconut fibre and hair is used to build the nest, which is a neat
little cup. Up to six white eggs heavily spotted with grey are generally laid.
Incubation is 13-14 days and the young remain in the nest for a further two
weeks. The young when feathered are a paler version of the adults and tinged
with yellow.


The pair may have up to three broods per year, especially if
the first or second clutches are lost for some reason.

The young need plenty of live food supplied from hatching. I have had good results with very small crickets, and mini meal worms, increasing in size as
the chicks grow.  Another great source of food is that suggested by that excellent bird man the late Ron McCluskey  in the classic book British Birds in Aviculture: He suggests acquiring small shrimps and other aquatic invertebrates from the local river, which is especially good for the first week of the chicks life. I am lucky enough to have a couple of local rivers full of life and ten minutes spent putting a net through the aquatic vegetation will provide a bucket full of food! This I pour, weed too, into a large shallow dish and the birds will pick through the weed for the invertebrate life.

Fruit flies and frozen pinkies will also be readily accepted and attracting insects into the flights with plants is always beneficial.

The young are normally rung, depending on growth, at around 5 days with a size c ring from the BBC or IOA.

I will remove the young as soon as they are feeding themselves to a separate flight or to a cage in the bird room. This is important as the adult cock bird in breeding condition may harm any young that are left in the breeding enclosure too long!

Wagtails are fairly popular show birds. They should be place in a cage that is decorated to reflect their natural habitat which can be quite diverse!

A good sized, cone shape bird with good distinct markings that displays itself steadily in a show cage makes a lovely exhibit.

I would recommend pied wagtails to anyone who wants to start breeding British softbills as they are easy to cater for and are relatively good breeders in captivity. Joining a local Cbs or online forum such as British Birds in Aviculture will help you get in contact with breeders of these beautiful birds.


Dave Wettner, 2012. 
Staff member at British Birds in Aviculture.    www.