The Willie Wagtail is June's bird of the month.
The Willie Wagtail is one of our most familiar songbirds. It is the largest of the Australian family of Fantails, but unlike its local cousins the Grey Fantail and the Rufous Fantail, it less often raises and spreads its long tail feathers, but swings them from side to side, hence its name. It is not shy of humans and will often flit about nearby to snap up insects we may disturb. This familiarity with humans led many Australian indigenous groups to view it with suspicion as an eavesdropper and spreader of secrets.
The Willie Wagtail is black above the wings, upper breast and long tail, with white below. It has a distinctive white eyebrow, and fainter white whiskery feathers below the bill and eye, while the slender bill and relatively long legs are black. Both sexes have similar plumage and Juvenile wagtails have duller, sometimes brownish plumage with lines of little buff flecks across the wings.
Willie Wagtails are found throughout the Australian mainland, and while spreading northwards to eastern Indonesia, across New Guinea to the Solomon Islands, are only occasional visitors to Tasmania.
Their preferred habitat is for open spaces in woodlands, fields and wetlands, so human adaptation of the Australian environment has worked well in the Willie Wagtails’ favour. They have made themselves at home in our parks and gardens.
The Willie Wagtail is insectivorous, and is most often seen flitting to and from the ground, running with tail wagging, in search of prey, or flying out from a perch to chase and capture insects in the air. Its varied diet, from flies, dragonflies, butterflies and moths taken in the air, to spiders, beetles and centipedes on the ground, has allowed the Willie Wagtail to establish itself in a wide range of habitats.
In the past, a fall in Willie Wagtail populations in Perth led to the discovery of insecticide contamination of soil and ground water.
Willie Wagtails tend to pair for life and are intensely territorial. Nesting is usually carried out from mid-winter to early summer, and as breeding season begins pairs will perch together and alternately carry out display flights and calls to announce their territory. Males will continue to call throughout the night, especially on moonlit nights. This is no problem in the park, but can be if your bedroom is near a nesting site.
A small cup shaped nest is constructed from grass woven together with spider web and lined with soft bark, fur and hair. The nest is usually placed on a horizontal branch and two to four eggs are laid. Both parents share incubation for about two weeks. The chicks are hatched naked and blind but quickly develop and are able to leave the nest after another two weeks.
Often the Willie Wagtails will lay again when the chicks have fledged, but will help support the juveniles until the next clutch begin to hatch at which time they will force the juveniles from the territory. They can raise up to four separate clutches a season, but despite fierce defence by the parents against much larger predators, such as Pied Currawongs, Australian Ravens, and cats, many eggs and chicks are lost. They will often nest near larger territorial birds, such as Australian Magpies and Magpie Larks for extra protection.
In the Park:
Willie Wagtails have territories throughout the parklands and will often join you as you stroll beside the ponds or relax on a bench. Its musical call is commonly translated to “sweet pretty creature” but if you hear a harsh chattering call look around and you may find a little cup shaped nest nearby.
This information was curated by a team of passionate Centennial Parklands volunteers and with the assistance of Volunteer Program and Asset staff. Find out more about our volunteer programs here.