The pied wagtail was named quite simply because it is black and white and wags its tail but the strong ties which this bird has made with us has led to a wide range of local names. Most of its familiar names make reference to the bird’s continual movement, its rather long tail or its affinity with water: ‘Washtail’ and ‘Peggy Dishwasher’ are two such examples.
The pied wagtail enjoys feeding around water but it doesn’t do so exclusively. In winter it is just as common to see a pied wagtail running around on the roof tops, the patio or the street. It may seem strange to us but their insect prey is easier to find on our roofs and pavements than it is in the open countryside. Our houses warm up in the winter sunshine and encourage insects to become more active. A south facing roof warms up quickly as I am sure anyone with solar panels will understand.
The reason for their tail-wagging antics is not really understood but their continuous activity fits in well with their restless lifestyle. Catching insects cannot be easy at the best of times but the agility of these birds is supreme. Wagtails combine quick scurries with twisting airborne sorties and a bobbing tail to bamboozle their prey.
Many pied wagtails gather in our towns and cities during the winter, here they spend the night together in large communal roosts. Trees and buildings in town centres can sometimes be smothered with pied wagtails on a winter’s night. They certainly benefit from choosing a sheltered environment for their roost and it is possible that they might gain warmth from each other but the primary reason for their close association is for security. More birds means more eyes to watch for danger and less chance of any individual falling prey to some opportunist predator.
Apart from the behaviour of the pied wagtail, its other most endearing and instantly recognisable feature is its voice. It is rare to see a pied wagtail take to the air without hearing its rather impudent ‘chizzick-chizzick’ call and it is this which often first attracts my attention as a wagtail struts around on the roof tiles of our house on a sunny morning in January.