Wagtails raise young alongside our own

Pied Wagtail - John Harding/BTO
Pied Wagtail - John Harding/BTO

There are pied wagtails flitting backwards and forwards across our garden, commuting between a riverside field and their nest, which is in one of the industrial units just across the road, writes Graham Appleton, from the BTO in Thetford..

The horses’ field provides the flies to feed their youngsters and there is probably a pile of pallets or a parked vehicle in which to secrete their nest. Occasionally they pause to feed on our roof, before flying on again with a ‘chizzik’ call.

One of these years I hope that the wagtails will choose to build a nest in the ivy that grows up the front of our house, saving them a lot of travelling time.

As a former schoolteacher, I associate pied wagtails with schools. Once break was over and quiet descended upon the playground, these smart little birds would claim ownership, skittering across the tarmac and pouncing upon insects, or jumping in the air to catch flies.

In the breeding season, a smart male, with jet-black back and waistcoat, would perch on a wire or roof-top to sing his tinkling song, perhaps while his mate looked for insects in the guttering.

It’s great that a few species find space to raise their broods alongside our own families, even in the most urban of areas.

Although territorial during the breeding season, come the end of the summer, pied wagtails become more gregarious. They still spend their days feeding in ones and twos but, come evening time, they gather together to roost, often in reed-beds in the late summer and then in more urban locations as nights get longer and colder. For decades they have been taking advantage of the heat we waste and the shelter we provide to survive through until morning.

When I lived in Edinburgh, we used to catch and ring the pied wagtails that roosted in a pile of empty beer crates at a brewery, right in the centre of the city. Some of these birds would later be found in England, having travelled south for the winter.

Back in the 1960s, one of the favourite roosting sites for pied wagtails was in greenhouses, where their droppings caused problems for growers of carnations and chrysanthemums. These days they are more likely to be found in the trees of a supermarket car park or in a sheltered courtyard. Security lights presumably reduce the chance of predation by owls and provide us with an opportunity to see the birds, silhouetted against the grey night sky on the bare branches of small trees.

Come the morning, the birds fly back to their favourite feeding spots in shopping streets and school playgrounds, to add a little bit of life to seemingly sterile environments.