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Wagtails and Pipits

Wagtails and pipits are 48 species of terrestrial birds that make up the family Motacillidae. Species in this group occur on all of the continents but Antarctica. The usual habitat of these birds is deserts and semi-deserts, prairies, tundras, shores, and cultivated fields. Many species are migratory, with northern species travelling to the tropics to spend their nonbreeding season, and alpine species moving to lower-altitude valleys and lowlands.

Wagtails and pipits are slender birds, with a body length of 5.1-8.7 in (13-22 cm). They have pointed wings, a long tail, long, slim legs, rather long toes and claws, and a thin, short, straight beak.

Pipits are typically colored in streaked or mottled browns, and the sexes are similar. Wagtails are brighter colored, with bold patterns of yellow, black, and white, and males being brighter than females. The tail of both types is commonly edged with white feathers, and it is wagged frequently as the bird walks, particularly by the well-named wagtails. The flight of these birds is undulating.

These birds hunt on the ground, by walking and searching for their food of small insects, other invertebrates, and seeds, especially during the winter.

Courtship in wagtails and pipits includes song-flights, which feature the male making a rapid ascent, and then undertaking a slower, fluttering, tinkling descent. Wagtails and pipits nest on the ground in a small cupshaped nest woven of plant fibers. The clutch size can range from two to seven, with high-latitude species having a larger number of eggs, and tropical species fewer. Both sexes of wagtails incubate the eggs, but in the pipits only the females do. Both sexes of pipits and wagtails cooperate in feeding the young.

The most widespread species in North America is the water pipit (Anthus spinoletta). This bird nests in alpine and arctic tundras. It spends its nonbreeding season in prairies and agricultural fields of the southern United States and Central America, generally occurring as seed-eating flocks of various size. The water pipit also breeds in arctic and alpine tundras of Eurasia.

The Sprague's pipit (A. spragueii) breeds in the mixed-grass and short-grass prairies of central North America, and winters in Arizona, Texas, and Louisiana, and as far south as southwestern Mexico.

The yellow wagtail (Motacilla flava) breeds in western Alaska and the northern Yukon, and much more widely in northern Eurasia. This species has a number of well-defined subspecies, and these have created some confusion among taxonomists, who in the past have treated certain of these subspecies as full species. The type occurring in Alaska is a subspecies of northeastern Siberia and the Beringean region, known as Motacilla flava tschutschensis. The white wagtail (M. alba) is another species that breeds widely in northern Eurasia, while also breeding in Greenland and western, coastal Alaska.

Bill Freedman

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