The white wagtail: small, smart and picture-perfect

The urban bird is the perfect species − after our resident Spanish sparrow − to start your child on a birdwatching journey
Small, smart and black-white-and-grey, the white wagtail is winter resident in Malta. Photo: Aron Tanti

The white wagtail recently made its way to the headlines, in association with the unhappy event of the gross pruning of the Mosta Square trees. But who is this pied character and why did it raise such a furore?

Smart monochrome

The white wagtail may be small, but its perfect design is as smart as any evening dress’s. A sleek black hood, matching black bib offset by brilliant white breast feathers and sleet grey back make this little winter visitor a picture-perfect bird.

Adding to its charm, the white wagtail has a distinguishable gait. You don’t have to be a birdwatcher to tell there’s a white wagtail around. To start with, the bird walks rather than hops like a sparrow. And being such a small bird, it needs to pack in a great many steps to walk around our streets, giving it an aspect of always being rather in a hurry.

White wagtails are common urban birds in winter, found even in streets where grass grows between cracks. Photo: Victor Falzon

Complementing its rapid pace is an incessant bobbing of a long, black-grey-and white tail. Apart from giving this group of birds their family name, the wagging-tail idiosyncracy makes the bird a cinch to identify, even if seen at a distance by a rookie birdwatcher.

Urban forager

All these characteristics make the white wagtail the perfect bird (after our resident Spanish sparrow) to start your child on a birdwatching journey. To enjoy birdwatching to the full, a pair of binoculars are a handy asset. You can get relatively inexpensive child-friendly pairs from various shops or the internet today (don’t go below €40 for a decently good pair).

The white wagtail flies to our shores in large numbers, escaping the cold of northern Europe to spend the winter in our relatively warm islands. The bird loves to hang around our urban habitats and is quite common, making it a great target for your birdwatching adventures.

During the day, white wagtails forage on their own, chasing off intruders from their patch. Photo: Aron Tanti

You will find the little urban friend strutting around any of these places: school grounds, streets, especially where puddles form, town squares, playing fields, wet or tilled fields and any open countryside where short grass grows.

During the day, white wagtails seek out their own Michelin-star venues, from where they pick at insects that gather around still water or damp grass.

Sprinkle a bit of fun over your birdwatching time and get your child to ‘see’ the bird as a smart waiter striding over to its clients, or a person in a hoodie hurrying to the supermarket.

Watch the bird dart forward and suddenly pick at something, or do a quick pirouette and snap up a fly on the wing.

The birds feed on insects they find around water bodies, including puddles. Photo: Aron Tanti

Evening spectacle

The late afternoon light triggers white wagtails’ roosting instinct. Suddenly the solitary foragers seek the company of the thousands of other white wagtails dispersed over our islands, and magically head in the same directions. The birds are following the time-honoured habit of safety in numbers during their most vulnerable time: sleep.

The best places for communal sleeping quarters, or roosts, are clumps of trees with dense foliage. The ficus tree, commonly planted in our town piazzas, make the perfect roost due to their small leaves and myriad branches. Huddled together in thousands, their tiny claws clasping twigs, white wagtails keep each other warm and safe during shut-eye.

“Add awareness of these afternoon calls to your child’s nature clock and you are enriching their life with natural time-markers for as long as the birds return to our islands in winter”

As the little birds wend their way to their roost, they call to each other with an unmistakable, repeated sharp  “CHI-SICK”. You can check the call of the white wagtail from the website xeno-canto.org.

Even if you are not close to a white wagtail roost, you will hear the calls from birds returning from all compass directions of our islands. Add awareness of these afternoon calls to your child’s nature clock and you are enriching their life with natural time-markers for as long as the birds return to our islands in winter.

A good flutter and spin in shallow water cleans feathers of parasites. Photo: Victor Falzon

Roost counts

BirdLife volunteers have been counting white wagtails as they fly towards their roosts for over 50 years. The lollipop silhouette of a flying white wagtail easily distinguishes it from Spanish sparrows also flying in to roost, making the birds easy to count as they pass overhead.

Why not drop BirdLife an e-mail and add your names to this year’s list of volunteers counting white wagtails? There are currently three known white wagtail roosts in Malta: one in Qawra, one at Mosta and the other – by far the largest – in Great Siege Square in Valletta.

Meet like-minded people as you join the in a roost count, typically lasting an hour-and-a-half as you gather, get to know your station and leader, and are kitted out with instructions, clipboard, log sheet and pen. Hang around for the peak of the event as all regroup and do the final tally. In 2023, a total of 11,192 white wagtails were counted in Valletta alone!

White wagtails walk rather than hop, all the while wagging their tail. Photo: Victor Falzon

Beating hearts

The savage pruning of the trees in Piazza Rotunda was well publicised in the media because it represents the worst of human attitude to nature: a callousness towards the other living things with whom we share our island home.

The hundreds of confused, exhausted white wagtails flying aimlessly around the naked trees, desperately in need of their roost, were also a stark reminder of nature’s vulnerability.

The gross pruning of ficus trees in Mosta square, that had been the home of white wagtails for years. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

This incident not only highlights people’s uncaring side, but also how civic power can act in nature’s favour, as the intended felling of the trees was ultimately thwarted by the uproar and protest. This winter, synchronise your child’s emotions with the thousands of tiny beating hearts that grace our urban roosts, laying the foundation for many more winters of shared appreciation for the little white wagtail.

Desirée Falzon is a naturalist and field teacher with BirdLife Malta.

All the articles in this series are available here. For more environment-related articles, follow this link.

For more Child stories, watch this space.

Join BirdLife Malta

For more nature experiences for you and your children, join BirdLife Malta’s family events at www.birdlifemalta.org/events or become a member and join their family of nature lovers at https://birdlifemalta.org/become-member/.

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