What do Willie Wagtails look like?
The small black and white Willie Wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys) is hard to miss. It has a long-fanned tail that it swings from side to side or up and down while foraging on the ground. Males have distinctive white eyebrows. This bird only grows up to 20 cm in length, and has dark eyes, black feathers and a white tummy.
Where are Willie Wagtails found?
The Willie Wagtail is found all over mainland Australia. They are very tolerant of human activity and can often be found nesting in the same place each year in your backyard near your house or shed. The Wagtail uses grasses, spider webs, hair and fur to construct its nest and will reuse the materials to rebuild its nest if necessary.
- Indigenous Australians believe the Willie Wagtail to be a gossiper who eavesdropped around the camps. In the Kimberley in Western Australia, legend has it that the birds would tell the spirit of the dead if anyone spoke badly of them.
- The distinctive white eyebrow of the male wagtail is not just a fashion statement – it helps him attract a mate. Rival males show aggression by expanding their eyebrows during a territorial dispute.
Willie Wagtail – the full story
The Willie Wagtail, Rhipidura leucophrys, lives all over mainland Australia and is hard to miss with its long fanned tail that it swings from side to side or up and down while foraging on the ground.
The distinctive white eyebrow of the male wagtail is not just a fashion statement – it helps him attract a mate. Rival males show aggression by expanding their eyebrows during a territorial dispute. The loser shows his submission by hiding his eyebrow completely, making him look like a young, immature bird.
The Willie Wagtail is very active and rarely still for more than a few moments during daylight hours. A Wagtail spends most of its time on the ground where it will often harass much larger birds to keep them out of its territory and may even stand up to other animals.
The Willie Wagtail is very tolerant, so you can get up close as it darts around your backyard lawn, hunting for insects on the ground and catching them in the air.
Danger from cats is always present however when they are feeding on the ground, so keep an eye on your or neighbour’s cat when they are around.
The Willie Wagtail prefers a wet backyard with lots of leaf-litter for feeding, and available mud for building its nest. The Wagtail uses grasses, spider webs, hair and fur to construct its nest and will reuse the materials to rebuild its nest if necessary. The Willie Wagtail is a great recycler.
Willie Wagtails love:
- To eat the insects and grubs from your lawn and garden.
- Well-watered suburban gardens, with lots of leaf litter, in which to build their nests.
- Fresh, clean water in a garden bird bath or container left outdoors, for them to drink, bathe and play in.
But they don’t like:
- Pallid Cuckoos which try to lay an egg in the Willie Wagtail’s nest. A Willie Wagtail can recognise an egg that isn’t theirs and will evict it from the nest.
- Big birds like Butcherbirds, Currawongs, Crows, Wedge-tailed Eagles, Brown Hawks, Magpies and Kookaburras that want to eat their chicks. The Willie Wagtails will defend their nests aggressively from much bigger birds and even dogs.
- Plant dense, spiky local native bushes in your garden and understory plants as a habitat for small birds to hide from larger predators.
- Let your Willie Wagtails be your garden bug controllers.
- Include mulch, leaf litter, rocks and fallen branches in your garden as they will create a habitat for lizards and bugs, which birds love to eat.
- Using chemicals and pesticides in your garden, because if a Willie Wagtail eats a poisoned insect it will become sick.
- Feeding wild birds including Willie Wagtails as they are happy and healthy finding their own food, and some of the food people give them isn’t good for them.
Don’t be surprised if Willie Wagtails:
- Chase away a much bigger bird of prey from their nest, and flare their white ‘eyebrows’ angrily at the predator as they drive it away.
- Build their nest near your house. These clever birds sometimes choose to build their nest right next to that of Magpie-larks, which defend their nests aggressively. Your Wagtails might have chosen you, as a human neighbour, for just the same reason.
- Nest in a sheltered spot about 5 m off the ground, which keeps them safe from many predators.
A few more Willie Wagtail facts
- The Willie Wagtail is a small black and white bird with a long, fanned tail. Willie Wagtails have very musical, sweet calls and are a delight to listen to.
- Willy Wagtails are at home not only in Australia but also in parts of New Guinea, where folklore believes that they are the ghost of relatives and bring good luck. Some Aboriginal tribes in Australia, on the other hand, are a little more apprehensive towards the chatty little bird. Believed to be a gossiper who eavesdropped around the camps, people would be cautious to tell any personal secrets in the presence of a Willie Wagtail. In the Kimberley in Western Australia, legend has it that the birds would tell the spirit of the dead if anyone spoke badly of them.