White wagtails (Motacilla alba) can be found in Europe, Asia and parts of North Africa. White wagtails are rare in extreme western Alaska where they are known to breed. There are also sightings of white wagtails along the California coast where they are infrequent, casual visitors. Although resident in most areas, white wagtails from higher latitudes migrate to North Africa and other more southerly areas in the winter. These white wagtails were photographed at an urban park in Sakaide, Japan where they live year-round.
At least nine, or maybe even eleven, subspecies of M. alba are recognized, each of which displays slight plumage differences. White wagtails are sexually dimorphic (males and females look slightly different), immatures are variable depending on age and the subspecies can hybridize. Therefore the appearance of white wagtails varies.
A white wagtail adult has a white face with black eyeline and white underparts. The upper parts, throat and upper breast are black as are the bill, legs and feet. The long, black tail is edged in white and constantly “wags”. In winter the black adult upper parts mute to a grey color – more variation in plumage.
Wagtails prefer open country with short vegetation near water and can also be found in urban areas and along the coast. (Sakaide is located along Japan’s Inland Sea.) They are very social and can often be found in groups as they forage for insects and small invertebrates. Crevices in natural or man-made stone formations or walls are preferred nesting sites, although wagtails will utilize other man-made structures.
Darwin originally classified white wagtails as Motacilla alba and the scientific name has not changed. The Latin derivations mean “little mover” (genus) and “white” (species).