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Willie Wagtail

A Willie Wagtail perched on top of a bush
A Willie Wagtail nest with two nestlings

Chicks in nest

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Scientific Name: Rhipidura leucophrys

Size: 18.5 to 21.5 cm.

What does it look and sound like?

The Willie Wagtail is the largest, and perhaps most well-known, of the Australian fantails.  The plumage is generally black above with a white belly. The Willie Wagtail can be distinguished from other similar sized black and white birds by its black throat and white eyebrows and whisker marks. The name wagtail stems from the constant sideways wagging of the tail. Young birds resemble the adults, but have paler edges to the feathers of the wings.

The call is also well-known, often being uttered constantly throughout the night, and is interpreted as “sweet-pretty-creature”, though other calls involve more scolding and chattering notes.

Where is it found?

It is widely distributed in Australia and northern Tasmania. The range of the Willie Wagtail also extends to New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Bismarck Archipelago and the Moluccas.

What are its habitats & habits?

The Willie Wagtail is found in almost any habitat except the densest forests, and is common around habitation. 

Although the Willie Wagtail is generally observed singly or in pairs, winter flocks may form, often mixed with other species, such as Grey Fantails, R. fuliginosa.

Willie Wagtails are active feeders. Birds can be seen darting around lawns as they hunt for insects on the ground. As they do so, the tail is wagged from side to side. Insects are also captured in the air, in active chases.

The Willie Wagtail is often found in the company of domestic and farm animals, such as cattle and sheep, where it either runs behind the moving animal snatching insects as they are disturbed, or sits on the back of the animal, darting off to capture a flying insect and then returning to its mobile perch.

While the Willie Wagtail can be found nesting at any time of the year, the breeding season is generally considered to be August to February. The nest is a neatly woven cup of grasses, covered with spider’s web on the outside and lined internally with soft grasses, hair or fur. The soft lining of the nest, if not readily available, is often taken directly from an animal.

The nest of the Willie Wagtail may be re-used in successive years, or an old nest is often destroyed and the materials used in the construction of a new nest. Nests are normally placed on a horizontal branch of a tree, or other similar structure. The normal clutch size is 3, and the cream-coloured eggs, speckled with grey and brown are incubated by both sexes. The young hatch after about 14 days and leave the nest after a further 2 weeks.

The young birds stay with the parents until the eggs from the next clutch start to hatch. At this point they are driven away. If conditions are favourable, the couple may raise up to 4 successive clutches in a single season.

Although it is active in defending its territory, the Willie Wagtail is very tolerant and tame around humans, often feeding and nesting in close proximity of houses and human activity.

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Front cover of Australia's Birdwatching Megaspots book showing a picture of an Eastern Spinebill

This species features in my book Australia’s Birdwatching Megaspots

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