Great Birding Moments #4 Willie Wagtail

Willie Wagtail

Willie Wagtail

The Willie Wagtail is a resident of our garden here in Murray Bridge. Our house is situated amongst 5 acres (2 hectares) of a mixture of garden plants, orchard, mallee scrub (mallee is a species of eucalypt) and open paddock.

Camera shy

Our resident Willie Wagtails seem to be rather camera shy. I’ve been trying for many months to get a good photo of this species here at home. Whenever I’d try to get close enough they’d be high in the foliage of the tree – or behind a bush – or they’d flit away before I could focus. Eventually I did manage to get a nice shot; the bird is good but the setting is horrible. I wish there was some way of masking out the rubbishy looking drum it has perched on. And look at all those weeds in the background!


The Willie Wagtail Rhipidura leucophrys, a member of the flycatcher family of birds, is one of Australia’s best known and well-loved birds. They are common throughout Australia and northern Tasmania. They are easily recognised as they flit around looking for a feed, tail wagging and fanning out disturbing insects. “Our” Willie Wagtails are a resident breeding pair. They usually have at least one and sometimes two broods each year, usually in spring and summer.

The Nest

The nest is a cup-shaped bowl about 5-6cm wide and deep. It is usually made from cobwebs, fine grass, feathers, wool, bark and other soft materials. It can be situated as low as a metre from the ground to 10 or even 15 metres high up in a tree. It is often located on horizontal branch but I have seen nests made on a metal strut inside a farm shed. They most often lay 2 or 3 eggs, but occasionally lay 4. To see four almost fledged baby Willie Wagtails in a small nest all reaching out to mum or dad begging for food, one wonders how the nest survives – and how they don’t topple out! The nest seems just right for one baby – three or four is definitely overcrowded. The interesting thing about “our” WWs is that they always nest very close to the house, usually within 15 metres.

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53 Responses to “Great Birding Moments #4 Willie Wagtail”

  1. holly says:

    In our local park in Yarraville, a suburb of Melbourne, we have a nesting pair of WWs, with 3 fledglings. The nest sits on a horizontal branch quite low to the water in the creek.I am always nervous that the young will drown, but they seem to have learnt to fly very quickly and are already in the next tree with a parent very close by.Although looking precarious the nest would have been safe from dogs and children, and probably cats. Its been great to watch the progress.

  2. Trevor says:

    Hi there Holly. Willie Wagtails would have to be one of my favourite birds. Thier antics are fascinating as they flit around looking for something to eat.

    I am pleased that you had good views of this new family growing up. It really is great to watch birds nesting close to one’s house or in a place you often visit.

  3. tom bouwman says:

    well hi,
    i like nature myself, but this is a unusual story about the willy wagtail…it started a few months back when i was woken up by a ww around three was in a tree like five metres away from our bedroom. the ww likes to wistle and wistle and wistle and wistle….literally for hours on end. since the last few months he is in the same tree every night from 11pm he starts sometimes 2 or 3 am for at least a few hours wistling..its the excact same wistle with the same amount of time in between..and did i mention its loud too. loud enough to wake us up. Me and my wife are waking up at least two three times a night. the wistling stops when daybreak starts around 5.30. My question to you is…what can we do about it because its almost literally driving us nuts. ps have you heard of this problem before??? i will look in anticipation to your reply, and thank you before hand.
    tom and lorena bouwman
    cairns australia…

  4. Trevor says:

    This is called its nocturnal song and is quite common and widespread in a number of species, including magpies. Unfortunately there is no easy solution.

    You comments and questions have inspired me to write a new article in this topic:

  5. […] Great Birding Moments #4: Willie Wagtails Wednesday January 30th, 2008 | Categories: Flycatchers; Garden birds; Bird Behaviour » 1 Comment   […]

  6. unfortunately i found a willie wagtail on the way to the letter box being attacked by up to five miner birds.they had stunned it and were swooping it and pecking its already exposed featherless head.when i picked the flapping stunned bird the miners still tried to attack it/me.bird partly recovered but didnt make it through the night after getting tangle in some food i left for it in a must have been weakened or sick etc.thankfully i have seen a few in the area so hopefully they will be back..

  7. Trevor says:

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. It is sad when any bird dies, but as you say, it may have been sick (or possibly injured in some way) so if the miners hadn’t got it, perhaps a hawk may have.

    Those miners can be very bossy and often harass other birds. Which miner species are you talking about?

    Willie Wagtails are good breeders, so I am confident another one will eventually take its place.

  8. cool….this was on gold coast.was the noisy miner,bit smaller than a butcher bird.grey feathers with yellow beak and black markings around eyes.i actually rescued one a while back in a tangle.actually there are a lot of bird territorial squabbles around, as its wooded and has gardens around here so very many birds.i have seen those miners even chase kookaburras etc……they seem to go in groups.lorikeets around here fly into cars a lot,on the roads.i also took one of those i found stunned on the road to vet care,some kids were poking it with a stick.i think the willie wagtail was weakened because only a healthy bird will overcome an injury and rapidly was probably just nature taking its course.i dont think the miners were hunting it ,just a territorial thing.

  9. Janine Smith says:

    We have willy wag tails breeding in our garden. The second set of babies are now in the nest. I was rather surprised by the behaviour of the adults as one seems to be faining injury to draw us away from the nest. It fluffs it’s self up and walks along the ground away from the babies.

  10. Trevor says:

    Welcome to my bird blog Janine. Thanks fro stopping by and leaving a comment about your bird observations.

    Your observation of the pretend injury is interesting. I’ve never seen it in Willie Wagtails but this tactic is quite common in many species of our birds, especially in some of our ground nesting birds like plovers and dotterals.

  11. sue says:

    hi trevor
    how do you tell the female from the male please?
    also do you know about the sex of the ibis as i am curious about them as well

  12. Trevor says:

    Hi there Sue,

    Sorry about the delay in replying – I’ve been very busy trying to finish writing my novel.

    Male and female Willie Wagtails look exactly the same.

    We have 3 kinds of Ibis in Australia.

    The male and female Glossy Ibis are the same.

    The male and female White Ibis are the same.

    The female Straw-necked Ibis has a shorter bill than the male.

  13. Chas Monk says:


    My wife and I are priveledged to have some friendly Willie Wag Tails
    make their nest on one arm of our rotary clothes line, no more than 2 metres from our games room door. Lat year they had 2 lots of 3 babies – it was awesome being able to be so close and observe their behaviour.

    This year, they have upped the anti! The first sitting produced 3 babies, all survived. The second produced 4 and 3 died as the direct result of a sudden burst of hot weather. The clothes line is located underneath an alsonite roof – that was a very sad day.

    My wife rescued the surviving chick from the brick paving and put it back into the nest – it survived. Now they have returned and there are 3 eggs this time. The high temperatures have returned and we have added shade cloth above the nest and yesterday and today have a had a fan going to cool things down. When my wife hangs out the washing they come out of the nest and stand and watch her from a distance of no more then 30 centimetres away.

    All makes for a beautiful world doesn’t i?

    Perth Western Australia

  14. vicki eldridge says:

    Hi, I have a fledgling willy wagtail at home, he was on the road last night and as it rained I didn’t want to leave him there. Mum and Dad kicked up a fuss but I could not find the nest. This morning I have been searching for the nest but no success so far. We have many cats here so if I leave him on the ground near the tree where he was found they may get him. Any ideas about re-uniting him?

  15. Trevor says:

    Sorry Vicki – this comment came in while I was away with no internet access.

    How did the little Willie Wagtail go?

  16. Trevor says:

    Thanks for you wonderful story too Chas. We love the birds that go about their daily lives in our garden just metres away from our activities. They must sense that we are their friends and mean them no harm.

  17. Margaret R says:

    Hi Trevor,
    Like many of your repondents, we’ve been delighted by the nesting of 2 willy wagtails within 2 m of our back veranda in a lemon tree. We watched at a distance as 3 eggs, then 3 chicks arrrived and grew well -till about7 days. Then one morning,no activity, so I checked and the nest was empty. No sign of them, no broken egg shells – nothing. Mother/Father still around and visiting nest sometimes. Cats are rare, only a blue tongue lizard in the backyard. I’m also sure this happened after dark,so other birds are not likely to be the predators. Appreciate any ideas as they may nest there again. Thanks Marg R

  18. Trevor says:

    Hi Margaret,

    Thanks for your comments.

    There are many reasons for the disappearance of baby birds. The usual one is predators – magpies, butcherbirds, currawongs, ravens and crows will all take the eggs or young of smaller birds.

    You observed that this happened after dark – then owls or frogmouths are probably the culprits.

  19. John says:

    At last I have found you again. Pewter crashed. Lost the lot.
    We had a pair of wagtails nest last year in our garden. But during the second laying. They abandond the nest and it was destroyed. We now have another pair nesting in the same place.And by the activity. I am confident that there are eggs in the nest. Just hope they stay longer this time.

  20. John says:

    Hi. I was going to feed the wagtails in our garden. But was told this would stop them from foraging for food. Is this correct?

  21. Janine says:

    Hi John, I have found I have a constant companion in my garden while I am working. The willie wagtails feed very well on insects as i disturb the garden. I also leave the compost bin slightly open for the birds to feed. I don’t know how you would feed them as they seem to catch insects on the move. Our home has very high ceiling inside, every day during the warmer months the blue eyes clean up the spiders on the outside and the willies enter the house and spend a couple of minutes inside cleaning any spiders inside. I don’t mind as they don’t seem to leave a mess.

  22. Trevor says:

    Willie wagtails are members of the flycatcher family of birds and are largely insectivorous. They do not need artificial feeding in most gardens as there will be plenty of flies, mosquitoes, butterflies, beetles, caterpillars and so on to keep them well fed.

    Having an open compost bin is an excellent idea to attract insects – and provide the willies with a ready supply of food.

  23. John says:

    Please urgent reply. Young bird fell out of nest. Put it back but adults very agitated. Will they still take care of it?

  24. John says:

    Sorry to say. When I checked this morning. The young bird has gone.I searched all around the area just in case the youngster was still nearby. But no luck. And there is no sign of the adults. Surely this can’t happen 2 years in a row? We had the same thing last year. One hatching. Then eggs from second laying disapeared from nest. And then it was destroyed. Are we destined to loose every year?

    • Trevor says:

      Unfortunately the answer to your last question is yes. The attrition rate in newly fledged birds is extremely high; fact of life in the wild.

      Willie Wagtails – and many other species of bush birds – can nest 2 – 4 times in a season, often laying 2 or 3 (and sometimes 4) eggs. Potentially they can lay up to about 15 eggs in a season. In many cases only one of those will reach maturity and go on to breed. By laying many eggs each season, they improve the chances of one reaching adulthood.

      Tough odds – but the eggs and young often provide food for larger predators (eg owls, hawks) which in turn assures their survival. The marvellous “Web of Life” can be cruel if viewed just through human eyes and sensibilities.

  25. John says:

    Glad to say that adults came back and have hatched another egg. But same as last time. The young bird has left/fallen out of the nest and is sitting on a low retaining wall. It’s being fed. But is unable to fly higher than about 1 meter. Is this a normal practice? Have checked the nest and it is empty.

    • Trevor says:

      Was it a windy day when it fledged (left the nest)? Stormy days often see baby birds blown from the nest a few days early. In those early days they can be spectacularly inept at flying. It’s now a week later so they should flying far more confidently now.

      • John says:

        Hi Trevor. No it was a calm day. And the nest is well protected uder a shade area. But we now suspect that there is another egg/s in the nest. One bird very agressive. The other just ignores us!

  26. John says:

    Hi Jen. We have a couple in our garden. One bird is very agressive. I wear a hat when in the garden as it swoops on me and bumps me on the head. It’s more anoying than anything. But when the wife is hanging out the washing. She is ignored. But doing anything else and she get’s the same treatment.

    Cheers John.

  27. […] Birding Moments #4 Willie Wagtail Title:Short URL: URL: via @TrevorHampel Twitter:@TrevorHampelStats about this user:TrevorHampel #birds […]

  28. Thomas says:

    Trevor i visited this website last year, cause they made a nest on top of the frame of my verandah. Protected from other birds, rain, and other things. Now they made it on the clothes line, will the babies die from wet?

    • Trevor says:

      Hi Thomas,

      Sorry about the delay in replying. We’ve just moved my mother in law into an aged care facility and have been busy cleaning her unit.

      How is the nest going? I’ve found over the years that most WW nests are very exposed to the weather with very little overhead protection. The rain doesn’t seem to be a problem as the water will just drain off their feathers. If it rains before their feathers grow the parents will shield them from getting too wet or too cold.

      An even greater risk is over exposure to heat. The eggs can literally cook on some of the hot days we’ve had recently here in SA and Victoria but you’ll find the adults will again care for the eggs by spreading their wings over the nest and not actually sitting on them all the time. They’ll do the same for the new chicks when they hatch.

      • Thomas says:

        Something just happened. The adult carried an egg in its mouth and chucked it on the ground. Oh and i tied an umbrella over the nest and the parents loved it. So is it possible the egg hatched, and the adult is disposing of the shell?

  29. Thomas says:

    Its been raining for 2 weeks straight, umbrella above it keeps blowing off because of wind. No more eggs, no more parents, for now

    • John says:

      Hi Thomas. Our birds nest on top of a post inder a shade area. We had some real heavy rain a few weeks ago. And the adults took turns in protecting the young. We are now into our 4th hatching this year. Although the young fly very early. The adults still come back to nest. When we have to go under the shade area. One of the adults goes absolutly balistic. Walk away and they just ignore us. But they do seem to be gradualy getting use tous. maybe they at last realise that we are no threat. Hope yours return.

  30. John says:

    Morning Trevor. Some time ago I asked about hand feeding the WW in our garden. And you said that they did not need it. I visited a friend recently. And he has a couple of aviaries. And a pair WW occasionaly followed him into his shed when he goes to get food for his birds.Possibly they look for insects etc. After a few occasions he decided to try and hand feed them with mealy worms. If they turn up and he does not feed them. They chirp away until he does. He has no idea where the nest is. But they do not come on a regular basis. So, looks like they just enjoy the treat now and again.

  31. John says:

    Morning Trevor. Are WW very teritorial? I would like to to a couple more nesting areas within about 4 meters of an existing nest. Would this work? As we now have a few more birds coming into the shade area as though they are looking for somewhere to build.

    • Trevor says:

      Yes – WWs are very territorial and will defend it vigorously against all – even large eagles will be pecked. I’ve heard they will even see off Wedge tailed eagles! Brave birds. As for other WWs in the area, I think that they will keep their distance.

  32. John says:

    Sorry. Like to put a couple etc

  33. John says:

    hello. Could anyone help me. Our WW nest under a shade area where I grow orchids. And the shade cloth needed replacing. And I wanted to get the job done before they return latter in the year. In the process of doing the job I knocked the nest of the post. I replaced it using oderless addesive. The nest has stuck firm. Will the birds still use it when they come back?

    • Trevor says:

      Hi John,

      I’m not sure whether they will use the nest again, though it is quite possible. I’ve seen nests used several times where they are in very sheltered spots, such as on those built on the framework of a open shed.

      Most of my experience with this species has been over the last 30 years living on the same property, a 5 acre patch of mallee scrub in SA. Our resident pair rarely nest more than 40 metres from the house, but always in a different spot. They may use the same tree several times but build a new nest for each brood. Sometimes they will raise 3 or 4 broods over one season which is quite normal. (The attrition rate for young birds is very high.) Normal breeding season is July – Feb with some geographical variations.

      On many occasions they will use materials from the old nest to build the next one, providing the wind and rain haven’t destroyed it in the meantime. I assume that the reason for building a new nest for each new brood is to make a fresh start, as old nests are often left ragged from the previous brood, and also quite fouled with droppings (and possibly filled with lice or other nasties).

  34. Aly says:

    Wondering if anyone could help – we’ve had WW trying to build a nest on our ceiling fan in the outdoors area, but the preparations just keep blowing away. They tried this last year and we put up some wire to contain the tree bits and pieces they were collecting but they never went back again and built somewhere else. Now they’re back this year trying again … any helpful tips that can make sure their collections don’t blow off the fan and they can build their nest on it? Thanks 🙂

    • Trevor says:

      Hi Aly,

      Sorry about the delay in replying – I’ve been quite ill recently. This is a challenging question and I cannot think of any way in which you can help these birds along. I would have thought that the wire would do the trick. They obviously didn’t like it – fussy birds.

      One other possibility is to tape a short stick to the fan – say 2 – 4cm thick and protruding from the end of the fan blade. This would look like a short branch, just like the type on which they usually make their nests.

  35. Ade W says:

    How do I tell the sex of each bird,please?
    I think we have 2 separate birds which are happily frequenting our yard.
    One has a tiny hook on the end of its beak and one has more distinct eyebrows.
    Is there a way to tell which is which?
    Thanks 🙂

  36. Ade W says:

    Thanks for that Trevor.
    Get well soon 🙂

    • Cathy F says:

      We had WW nesting last year under our shade cloth and they dismantled the nest themselves a few months later to relocate. We now have another pair nesting in exactly the same place. We think it is 1 of last years babies. I think your WW with either accept the nest or relocate but my feeling is that you should take down the nest and let them rebuild.

  37. John says:

    Hi. Can anyone help me with my question 33. We have had a couple of birds come and have a look at the nest. But they have not taken up residence. Even though one sat on the nest for about 10 minutes.

  38. sue says:

    Wow have had 2 babies 1 died ,1 flew away successfully but the last one cannot fly it seems to have something wrong with one wing. at the moment the parents are still feeding it and watching over it. Do you know how long they will watch over this little baby , it is very vulnerable to cats and other prey just wandering around on the ground.

    • Trevor says:

      Hi Sue,

      It almost sounds like the baby has injured its wing in attempting to fly for the first time. The parents should keep feeding it for a few weeks (say, about 15 – 20 days) when it should be eating and fending for itself independently. In the meantime, I am afraid it is very vulnerable. And if it cannot fly properly at the end of that time, its chances in life are not good. Many people do not realise the high attrition rate there is amongst young birds. It is early in the breeding season, so it is quite likely that the parents will nest again – maybe twice.

  39. Gail Freeman says:

    Hi, I have had two resident Willy Wagtails who have frequented my garden for several years and nested every season, I last heard one of them calling at night about 2 weeks ago, however I haven’t seen or heard any willy wagtails since. Could it be that they are now nesting and sitting on eggs? I am hoping that this is the case as I really miss not seeing or hearing them around the garden.

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