Pipits and Wagtails: Motacillidae

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Birds of the Motacillidae family can be divided into three groups: pipits, longclaws, and wagtails. All members of the family are small to medium sized, ranging in length from 5 to 8.75 inches (12.7 to 22.2 centimeters). Adult wagtails are perhaps the most colorful birds of the group, with their black, white, green, yellow, or gray stripes and patterns. The coloring of pipits, which make up two-thirds of the family, is more subdued, streaked brown to buff, a sand-color, and they have thin, pointy bills and medium to long legs. Pipits, unlike wagtails, do not have different seasonal plumage, feathers. The longclaws often have upper plumage, feathers, designed for camouflage (KAM-uh-flaj; colored to blend in with the surroundings) but brilliantly colored plumage underneath. Adult longclaws have dark, necklace-like plumage next to their throats and chins, which are red, orange, or yellow.

Longclaws are named for their long hind claws, which in several species extend twice as long as the foot, or up to 2 inches (5 centimeters). This hind claw is used for perching on grass clumps and walking.

Pipits, longclaws, and wagtails generally have medium to long tails, which they often pump or wag when walking. They are slender, long-bodied, short-necked, energetic, and quick moving. Pipits and wagtails have very similar body types, causing confusion among birdwatchers, but it is generally agreed that pipits have shorter tails than wagtails and a more upright stance on the ground. Longclaws are the most upright of the group, and are often compared to larks in appearance.


Pipits, longclaws, and wagtails are cosmopolitan, meaning they inhabit all the continents of the world. The species may be found from the Arctic tundra all the way to the Antarctic. Most of the birds are migratory and fly south to spend the winter in Africa and Asia. Wagtails are somewhat rare in Australia, but are otherwise widespread. Pipits are also widespread, although only one species occurs in Australia and one in New Guinea. Longclaws are confined to grassland regions of sub-Saharan Africa.


Most species live in open or semi-open country, and many prefer grassy areas such as fields and rocky meadows. Wagtails particularly favor streams, lake edges, rivers, and wetlands, while pipits search out open grasslands from sea level to as high as 17,400 feet (5,300 meters) in the Himalayas. Longclaws also tend to stick to open grasslands and the edges of wetlands.


All members of this family primarily eat insects and their eggs, from tiny midges to locusts and dragonflies. Their favorite foods seem to be beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, ants, wasps, praying mantids, and termites. Some species also eat aquatic insects, seeds, berries, plant parts and carrion, dead and decaying meat.


Pipit, longclaw, and wagtail species are very territorial, and males aggressively defend their breeding areas. Some even attack their reflections in the hubcaps of cars and windows. Some of the species are monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus), having only one mate. They perform courtship displays, behaviors that lead to mating. Some species' displays include presenting females with nesting material or food, while others, especially pipits, stage spectacular aerial flights to attract mates and defend their territory.

This family of birds typically builds cup-shaped nests on the ground in a depression or shallow, scraped-out area. Their neatly formed nests are usually made of grass, stems, and other plant parts and lined with hair, feathers, and other soft materials. The female most often constructs the nest, but males are often in attendance and sometimes help. Pipits and wagtails generally nest in the grass, although wagtails also nest in nooks and cracks in rocks, stream banks, cliffs, and walls, or under bridges and in hollow tree branches and roots. Longclaws also tend to nest in the grass, but prefer to hide in or at the base of a tussock, a clump of grass, or among leafy plants.

Most wagtails and pipits breed from April to August and may have two or three broods, group of chicks that hatch at the same time, per breeding season. Longclaws breed during or shortly after the rainy season. Female longclaws lay a clutch of two to five green, pale blue, or pink eggs. Wagtails lay three to eight eggs and pipits lay two to nine, depending on latitude and environment. Usually the female incubates, sits on, the eggs alone, but sometimes the male helps. Both parents care for the fledglings, young birds that have recently grown the feathers needed for flight, which leave the nest after ten to seventeen days.

Many species migrate in flocks and gather into large groups during the nonbreeding season. Wagtails roost together in reed beds and bush- and scrub-vegetated areas. They will vigorously defend good feeding areas from intruders with a display of head-bobbing and jumping into the air. Wagtails may be identified by the characteristic wagging motion of their longish tails. Pipits also do something similar with their tails, but, with a few exceptions, it is not as noticeable. Both species can run very quickly and prefer to crouch in short vegetation to escape the notice of predators, animals that hunt them for food. They are strong fliers, and usually have an undulating, smooth wave-like, flight pattern. The flight of longclaws, on the other hand, is jerky because of their habit of alternating periods of gliding and flapping. Both pipits and longclaws use song-flights as part of their territorial and mating behaviors; wagtails more often sing their simple, melodious songs from the ground or a perch.


Almost none of the birds in the Motacillidae family like to perch in trees. They would rather stay on the ground, where they feed and nest, and are experts at evading danger by running swiftly to thick vegetation or rocky outcrops.

When foraging, searching for food, this family of birds uses numerous techniques, including following the plow as a field is plowed, walking while picking from the ground or water surface, darting after insects, putting their heads underwater, flying or hovering to catch winged prey, and poking into vegetation and leaf litter.


People have long been amused by the endearing playfulness of the pipit, which many reports suggest enjoys running in front of people walking on dirt paths and trails and then rising up into the air with a sharp chirp before landing to run again. The family of birds is also beloved by birdwatchers because of their liveliness, energy, and colorfulness. Wagtails especially have special significance for humans, and figure prominently in Japanese, Greek, and African mythology.


With the destruction and degradation of many grassland and wetland, available habitats have decline for Motacillidae populations. As a result, two species have been listed as Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction, dying out, by the World Conservation Union (IUCN); three species have been designated as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction; and five species are Near Threatened, in danger of becoming threatened with extinction.


Physical characteristics: Gray wagtails range in size from 7.1 to 7.5 inches (18 to 19 centimeters) and in weight from 0.5 to 0.8 ounces (14 to 22 grams). Their gray upper body is offset by bright yellow on their undersides. In summer the males develop a distinctive face pattern of white stripes and a black bib.

Geographic range: This species inhabits areas of northwest Africa and Europe east to Iran, northeast China and Japan, Pakistan, and New Guinea. They migrate for the winter to western Europe, the Middle East, and Africa south to Malawi.

Habitat: Gray wagtails seek out fast-moving, rocky upland rivers and streams, but many occupy territories near canals and on rock-strewn lakeshores with dense foliage and tree cover. In winter, they can also be seen in lowlands near bodies of water, at the coast, and in estuaries (EST-yoo-air-eez), where freshwater and saltwater mix. Some birds spend the winter in towns.

Diet: Gray wagtails feed mainly on aquatic insects. They also eat small fish and tadpoles. Gray wagtails forage both on the ground and in the water, and occasionally catch airborne insects.

Behavior and reproduction: Gray wagtails are territorial during the breeding season, March through May. Some defend their feeding areas during winter, when they tend to roost in groups. Mating pairs are monogamous, and the male helps to build the nest, usually on a cliff ledge or among tree roots. The female lays three to seven eggs, and both parents then incubate the young for eleven to fourteen days. The young leave the nest within eleven to seventeen days.

Gray wagtails and people: Birdwatchers often confuse this species with the yellow wagtail, but the gray wagtail has a gray, rather than yellowish brown, back; a longer, more strongly patterned black-and-white tail; and a broad, pale wing-bar when in flight.

Conservation status: Gray wagtails are considered Vulnerable due to the destruction of their favored habitats by development and contamination. ∎


Physical characteristics: Rosy-breasted longclaws range in length from 7.5 to 8 inches (19 to 20 centimeters) and in weight from 1.1 to 1.4 ounces (30 to 40 grams). Their mottled, speckled, upperparts include an orange-red patch on the throat with a dark band across their lower throat and a pinkish breast. The hind claw on the foot of this bird is extremely long, making up at least half the length of the foot.

Geographic range: This species inhabits southwestern Kenya and north and southwest Tanzania, as well as parts of Angola, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and the east coast of South Africa.

Habitat: Rosy-breasted longclaws live in grasslands with short bunches of vegetation in areas that are permanently or seasonally moist. They often live near marshes or open bodies of water.

Diet: This species eats mainly insects and sometimes small frogs, but it also forages, searches for food, in grass or on the bare ground and occasionally pursues winged insects into the air.

Behavior and reproduction: This shy longclaw is territorial during the breeding season, when the species tends to gather into pairs or family groups. Males usually sing from the tops of bushes or during song-flights. Mating pairs are monogamous and breed mostly during or after seasonal rains. The female builds a cup-shaped nest of grass within a tuft of grass, and lays two to four eggs. The female incubates them for thirteen to fourteen days, and the fledglings leave the nest after sixteen days.

Rosy-breasted longclaws and people: Rosy-breasted longclaws have no special significance to people.

Conservation status: Rosy-breasted longclaws are listed as Near Threatened in South Africa and Mozambique due to loss of coastal habitat. ∎


Physical characteristics: Sprague's pipit ranges in length from 6.3 to 7 inches (16 to 18 centimeters) and in weight from 0.8 to 1 ounce (22 to 29 grams). Their pale buff face blends into olive-tan upperparts that are streaked with black and buff. Their undersides are whitish or buff with dark streaks and their outer tail feathers are white. This species has a thin, pale-colored bill, dark eyes, and light-colored legs and feet.

Geographic range: Sprague's pipits occupy areas of Canada, including Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba, and British Columbia, and Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota in the United States. The bird migrates to Mexico and the southern United States in winter.

Habitat: Sprague's pipits inhabit prairies of tall grass and short-grass plains, where their coloring makes them nearly invisible. While migrating, they forage and rest in plowed fields or harvested hay and wheat fields.

Diet: Sprague's pipits eat mainly insects, but sometimes add seeds to their diet.

Behavior and reproduction: This solitary and secretive pipit species is known for flying high into the air when startled. They are also noted for their beautiful, arcing song-flight during mating season in April and May. Mating pairs are monogamous, and build a cup-shaped nest of grass and stems on the ground where tall grass can fall over the structure. The female lays four to seven eggs, and fledglings leave the nest in ten to eleven days.

Sprague's pipits and people: Naturalist and artist James Audubon named this bird after Isaac Sprague, an artist who came with him on a trip up the Missouri River. The first bird of this species was found in 1843.

Conservation status: Sprague's pipits are listed as Vulnerable. Their populations have declined rapidly due to loss of prairie breeding grounds. Prairies have been taken over by agriculture and by the invasion of aggressive plant species. ∎



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Web sites:

"The Motacillidae." Gordon's Motacillidae Page. http://www.earthlife.net/birds/motacillidae.html (accessed on June 24, 2004).

National Wildlife Federation. "Sprague's Pipit." eNature.com. http://www.enature.com/fieldguide/showSpeciesSH.asp?curGroupID=1&shapeID=961&curPageNum=147&recnum=BD0301 (accessed on June 24, 2004).

Olliver, Narena. "Puhoihoi, the New Zealand Pipit." New Zealand Birds Gallery. http://www.nzbirds.com/NZPipit.html (accessed on June 24, 2004).

"Pipits & wagtails: Motacillidae." Bird Families of the World. http://www.montereybay.com/creagrus/pipits.html (accessed on June 24, 2004).

"Pipits and Wagtails: Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea." Bird Guides. http://www.birdguides.com/html/vidlib/species/motacilla_cinerea.htm (accessed on June 24, 2004).

"Pipits, wagtails, longclaws." Birds of the World. http://www.eeb.cornell.edu/winkler/botw/motacillidae.html (accessed on June 24, 2004).

"Sprague's Pipit." Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/Infocenter/i7000id.html (accessed on June 24, 2004).