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.
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.
Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native ); palearctic (Native ); oriental (Native ); ethiopian (Native ); neotropical (Native ); australian (Native ); antarctica (Native )
Other Geographic Terms: holarctic ; cosmopolitan
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.
Sexual Dimorphism: sexes alike; male larger; sexes colored or patterned differently; male more colorful
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; bilateral symmetry
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.
Habitat Regions: temperate ; tropical ; polar ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: tundra ; desert or dune ; savanna or grassland ; mountains
Other Habitat Features: urban ; agricultural
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.
Primary Diet: carnivore (Piscivore , Insectivore , Eats non-insect arthropods, Molluscivore ); herbivore (Frugivore , Granivore ); omnivore
As insectivores, pipits and wagtails affect insect populations throughout their range. They are also hosts to parasitic cuckoos (Cuculidae).
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.
- falcons and hawks (Falconiformes)
- owls (Strigiformes)
- weasels (Mustelinae)
- squirrels (Sciruidae)
- mice (Rodentia)
- house cats (Felis domesticus)
Anti-predator Adaptations: cryptic
Animal / parasite / ectoparasite
imago of Ornithomya chloropus ectoparasitises Motacillidae
Animal / parasite / ectoparasite
imago of Ornithomya fringillina ectoparasitises Motacillidae
Other: major host/prey
Life History and Behavior
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.
Communication Channels: visual ; acoustic
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
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.
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.
Mating System: monogamous ; polygynous
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).
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; fertilization (Internal ); oviparous
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.
Parental Investment: altricial ; male parental care ; female parental care
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Statistics of barcoding coverage
Specimens with Sequences:334
Specimens with Barcodes:318
Species With Barcodes:31
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.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
There are no known adverse affects of pipits and wagtails on humans.
Pipits and wagtails can be important agents in the control of insect pests.
Positive Impacts: controls pest population
The Motacillidae are a family of small passerine birds with medium to long tails. There are around 65 species in 6 genera and they include the wagtails, longclaws and pipits. The longclaws are entirely restricted to the Afrotropics, and the wagtails are predominantly found in Europe, Africa and Asia, with two species migrating and breeding in Alaska. The pipits have the most cosmopolitan distribution, being found across mostly in the Old World but occurring also in the Americas and oceanic islands such as New Zealand and the Falklands. Two African species, the yellow-breasted pipit and Sharpe's longclaw are sometimes placed in a separate seventh genus, Hemimacronyx, which is closely related to the longclaws.
Wagtails, pipits, and longclaws are slender, small to medium sized passerines, ranging from 14 to 17 centimetres in length, with short necks and long tails. They have long, pale legs with long toes and claws, particularly the hind toe which can be up to 4 cm in length in some longclaws. There is no sexual dimorphism in size. Overall the robust longclaws are larger than the pipits and wagtails. Longclaws can weigh as much as 64 g, whereas the weight range for pipits and wagtails is 15–31 g. The plumage of most pipits is dull brown and reminiscent of the larks, although some species have brighter plumages, particularly the golden pipit of north-east Africa. The adult male longclaws have brightly coloured undersides. The wagtails often have striking plumage, including grey, black, white, and yellow.
Most motacillids are ground-feeding insectivores of slightly open country. They occupy almost all available habitats, from the shore to high mountains. Wagtails prefer wetter habitats to the pipits. A few species use forests, including the forest wagtail, and other species use forested mountain streams, such as the grey wagtail or the mountain wagtail.
Motacillids take a wide range of invertebrate prey, especially insects are the most commonly taken, but also including spiders, worms, and small aquatic molluscs and arthropods. All species seem to be fairly catholic in their diet, and the most commonly taken prey for any particular species or population usually reflects local availability.
With the exception of the forest wagtail, they nest on the ground, laying up to six speckled eggs.
Species and genera
- Genus Anthus: typical pipits
- (c.40 species; see genus page)
- Genus Tmetothylacus
- Golden pipit, Tmetothylacus tenellus
- Genus Motacilla: typical wagtails
- White wagtail Motacilla alba - possibly paraphyletic
- Japanese wagtail Motacilla grandis
- White-browed wagtail Motacilla madaraspatensis
- Mekong wagtail Motacilla samveasnae
- African pied wagtail Motacilla aguimp
- Citrine wagtail Motacilla citreola - possibly paraphyletic
- Western yellow wagtail Motacilla flava - possibly paraphyletic
- Eastern yellow wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis - possibly paraphyletic
- Grey wagtail Motacilla cinerea
- Cape wagtail Motacilla capensis
- Madagascar wagtail Motacilla flaviventris
- Mountain wagtail Motacilla clara
- Genus Dendronanthus
- Forest wagtail, Dendronanthus indicus
- Genus Macronyx: longclaws
- Cape longclaw, Macronyx capensis
- Yellow-throated longclaw, Macronyx croceus
- Fülleborn's longclaw, Macronyx fuellebornii
- Sharpe's longclaw, Macronyx sharpei
- Abyssinian longclaw, Macronyx flavicollis
- Pangani longclaw, Macronyx aurantiigula
- Rosy-throated longclaw, Macronyx ameliae
- Grimwood's longclaw, Macronyx grimwoodi.
- Voelker, Gary; Scott V. Edwards (1998). "Can Weighting Improve Bushy Trees? Models of Cytochrome b Evolution and the Molecular Systematics of Pipits and Wagtails (Aves: Motacillidae)". Systematic Biology 47 (4): 589–603. doi:10.1080/106351598260608. PMID 12066304.
- Clancey, P.A. (1991). Forshaw, Joseph, ed. Encyclopaedia of Animals: Birds. London: Merehurst Press. pp. 172–173. ISBN 1-85391-186-0.
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