Willie Wagtail

Willie Wagtail

Willy wagtail, Black-and-white fantail, Black-and-white flycatcher, Pied fantail, White-browed fantail, Willie-wagtail, Water wagtail, Fantail flycatcher

Rhipidura leucophrys
Population size
Life Span
15 yrs
17-24 g
19-21.5 cm

The Willie (or willy) wagtail is the most familiar songbird found in Australia. It is common throughout much of its range, living in most habitats apart from thick forest. This bird spends much time chasing prey in open habitat. Aggressive and territorial, the Willie wagtail will often harass much larger birds such as the Laughing kookaburra and Wedge-tailed eagle. It has responded well to human alteration of the landscape and is a common sight in urban lawns, parks, and gardens. It is widely featured in Aboriginal folklore around Australia and New Guinea in a variety of roles, from stealer of secrets and liar to a good omen for successful crops.


















Not a migrant


starts with



Willie wagtails are found across most of Australia and New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, the Bismarck Archipelago, and eastern Indonesia. They are sedentary across most of Australia and are autumn and winter visitors to northeastern New South Wales and southeast Queensland, as well as the Gulf Country and parts of the Cape York Peninsula in the far north. Willie wagtails live in a wide variety of habitats, but avoid densely forested areas such as rainforest. They prefer semi-open woodland or grassland with scattered trees, often near wetlands or bodies of water. In New Guinea, they inhabit man-made clearings and grasslands, as well as open forest and mangroves. These birds also often hunt in open, grassed areas such as lawns, gardens, parkland, and sporting grounds.

Willie Wagtail habitat map

Climate zones

Habits and Lifestyle

Willie wagtails are energetic birds; they are almost always on the move and rarely still for more than a few moments during daylight hours. Even while perching they will flick their tail from side to side, twisting about looking for prey. Willie wagtails are usually seen singly or in pairs, although they may gather in small flocks. Much of their time is spent on the ground. In flight they beat their wings deeply, interspersing with a swift flying dip and characteristically wag their tail upon landing after a short dipping flight. Willie wagtails hunt by perching on low branches, fences, posts, and the like, watching for insects and other small invertebrates in the air or on the ground. They usually hunt by hawking flying insects, but will occasionally glean from the ground. They will often hop along the ground and flit behind people and animals, such as cattle, sheep, or horses, as they walk over grassed areas, to catch any creatures disturbed by their passing. These birds kill their prey by bashing it against a hard surface, or holding it and pulling off the wings before extracting the edible insides. Willie wagtails are highly territorial and can be quite fearless in defense of their territory; they will harry not only small birds but also much larger species and may even attack domestic dogs, cats, and humans that approach their nest too closely. A pair of birds will declare and defend their territory against other pairs in a diving display. One bird remains still while the other loops and dives repeatedly before the roles are reversed; both sing all the while. Willie wagtails are very "chatty" and have a number of distinct vocalizations. Their most-recognized sound is an alarm call which is a rapid 'chit-chit-chit-chit'. The alarm call is sounded to warn off potential rivals and threats from the birds' territory and also seems to serve as a signal to their mate when a potential threat is in the area.

Group name
Seasonal behavior
Bird's call

Diet and Nutrition

Willie wagtails are carnivores (insectivores). They eat a wide variety of insects, including butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, dragonflies, bugs, spiders, centipedes, and millipedes, and have been recorded killing small lizards such as skinks and geckos.

Mating Habits

14 days
14 days
2-4 eggs

Willie wagtails are monogamous and usually pair for life. Their breeding season lasts from July to December, more often occurring after rain in drier regions. Anywhere up to four broods may be raised during this time. The birds build a cup-like nest on a tree branch away from leaves or cover, less than 5 m (16 ft) above the ground. The nest consists of grass stems, strips of bark, and other fibrous material that is bound and woven together with a spider web. The female lays 2 to 4 small cream-white eggs with brownish markings and incubates them for 14 days. The chicks are altricial; they are born naked and helpless with closed eyes and remain in the nest. Both parents take part in feeding the young and may continue to do so while embarking on another brood. Nestlings remain in the nest for around 14 days before fledging. Upon leaving, the fledglings will remain hidden in cover nearby for 1 or 2 days before venturing further afield, up to 20 m (66 ft) away by the 3rd day. Parents will stop feeding their young near the end of the second week, as the chicks increasingly forage for themselves, and soon afterward drive them out of the territory.


Population threats

Willie wagtails are widespread and abundant throughout their range and don't face any major threats at present.

Population number

The IUCN Red List and other sources don’t provide the number of the Willie wagtail total population size. Currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List and its numbers today are increasing.

Fun Facts for Kids

  • The common name of the Willie wagtail is derived from its habit of wagging its tail horizontally when foraging on the ground. The exact purpose of this behavior is unknown but is thought to help flush out insects hidden in vegetation and hence make them easier to catch.
  • Other names applied for Willie wagtails include shepherd's companion (because it accompanied livestock), frogbird, morning bird, and Australian nightingale. There are also many Aboriginal names, based on the sound of the birds' scolding call; these include Djididjidi, djikirridj-djikirridj, tjintir-tjintir(pa), thirrithirri, tsiropen, and maneka. In the Solomon Islands Pijin the Willie wagtail is sometimes called the 'polis' (police) or 'pris' (priest) bird, because of its black-and-white coloring.
  • During aggressive displays the white eyebrows of Willie wagtails become flared and more prominent and when birds are in a submissive or appeasement display their eyebrows are settled and more hidden.
  • The Willie wagtail was a feature in Australian Aboriginal folklore. Aboriginal tribes in parts of southeastern Australia, regard this bird as the bearer of bad news. It was thought that the Willie wagtail could steal a person's secrets while lingering around camps eavesdropping, so women would be tight-lipped in the presence of the bird. The people of the Kimberley held a similar belief that it would inform the spirit of the recently departed if living relatives spoke badly of them. They also venerated Willie wagtail as the most intelligent of all animals.
  • The Kalam people of New Guinea highlands called the Willie wagtail 'konmayd', and deemed it a good bird; if it came and chattered when a new garden was tilled, then there would be good crops. The bird is said to be taking care of pigs if it is darting and calling around them.
  • Usually the nests of Willie wagtails are bound and wove together with spider web, however, the birds may also use hair from pet dogs and cats. Once the wagtail has even been observed attempting to take hair from a pet goat.


1. Willie Wagtail on Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willie_wagtail
2. Willie Wagtail on The IUCN Red List site - https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22706805/118756017
3. Xeno-canto bird call - https://xeno-canto.org/707021

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