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Why do wagtails wag their tails?

Sent in by Roy Codd, Basingstoke, Hants

There are four species of wagtails (close relatives to pipits) within Europe. Three of these breed in Britain and further more, the distinct races of yellow wagtail (flavissima) and pied wagtail (yarrellii) that breed here are endemic, meaning they only occur in the British Isles!

There is no clearly definitive reason as to why wagtails perform their namesake but it is almost certainly be an evolutionary adapted behaviour for social signalling and improved feeding efficiency.

Wagtails are exclusively insectivores and their tails are an enormous benefit to them in catching food. Tail movements are most persistent for all wagtail species during feeding. They have two distinct techniques that they use. Firstly, when picking insects off the ground they walk or run along repeatedly picking up small items and chasing more mobile prey such as beetles and small spiders. Their tails will be seen wagging and snapping up and down or even to the sides, apparently to flush insects. Grey wagtails are also known to wade into shallow water picking up tadpoles or even lunging for small fry. Again, the tail will help power this. 

The other feeding method that wagtails use is flycatching, moving from a perch off the ground or even sometimes intermittently or continuously hovering to snap at flying insects. Quite often when flycatching, wagtails take the prey using a zig-zag flight, tumbling and circling with the tail acting as a rudder.

During the breeding season male wagtails sing from perches or in flight - more so for the yellow and grey wagtails in display flights. The song-flight varies in length and duration, For yellow wagtails this is essentially a series of long wavering undulations amplified by the waging tail. Grey Wagtails descend parachute-fashion from a high perch with the wings held steady and the tail raised to expose the rump. Pied Wagtails often simply sing from a perch a using their voice and movement to attract a mate.

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