Grey wagtail

Grey wagtail

©Bertie Gregory/2020VISION

Grey wagtail

Scientific name: Motacilla cinerea
A breeding bird of fast-flowing, upland rivers, the grey wagtail can also be seen in lowland areas, farmyards and even towns in winter.

Species information


Length: 18-19cm
Wingspan: 26cm
Weight: 18g
Average lifespan: 3 years

Conservation status

Classified in the UK as Amber under the Birds of Conservation Concern 5: the Red List for Birds (2021). Protected in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981.

When to see

January to December


The grey wagtail is a common bird of fast-flowing rivers and can be found in high densities in the hills of England, Scotland and Wales. In winter, they move to lowland areas and can be spotted in farmyards and even in towns. Grey wagtails eat ants and midges that they find beside rivers, and snails and tadpoles they find in shallow water. They nest near the water in hollows and crevices lined with moss and twigs.

How to identify

The grey wagtail has a very long, black-and-white tail, a yellow rump and a yellow belly. It is grey above with black wings. Males have a grey face with a black throat bib and a white 'moustache'. The similar yellow wagtail has a shorter tail and an olive-green back, and does not have a black bib.


Widespread, although less common in the lowlands of East Anglia and South East England.

Did you know?

Once much more restricted to the fast-flowing rivers of the uplands, the grey wagtail has been able to expand its range due to improving water quality in many of our rivers in recent decades. It can now be found nesting in most parts of the country.


© Tom Hibbert