Other names: Black and White Fantail (because it belongs to the fantail family)
Size: Small, but larger than fairy-wren.
Range and lifestyle: Resident throughout eastern Australia, living in small territories.
Food: Invertebrates, mainly insects.
Breeding: Mainly spring and early summer. Nest is neat cup of grass bound with spiderweb. Eggs 2-3, white spotted dark brown. Both parents incubate over 2 weeks, then feed the chicks for another 2 weeks.
As its name implies, the Willie Wagtail characteristically wags its long tail, waving it from side to side almost incessantly. It’s thought that these sudden tail movements are designed to scare insects out of their hiding places and into the open, where they are then hotly pursued by the bird.
The “Willie” is a familiar site all around Australia, easily recognised by its small size, pied plumage and restless activity. Its unmistakeable, cheerful song has been likened to the phrase “sweet pretty creature”, and may be heard at any time of day or night. On moonlit nights, it sometimes sings off and on for hours. Willies also give a harsh rattling alarm call sounding like “chidit- chidit- chidit”, especially when humans or other animals approach their nests. Both male and female will attack animals much larger than themselves, including raptors, in defence of their eggs or young, behaviour which has earned the species a reputation as fearless.
The Willie Wagtail prefers open habitats, so has probably benefited from humans, firstly from the widespread use of fire by Aboriginal people, and secondly, from the clearing of forests by European settlers. In urban areas, it is common in parks and gardens, where it often forages on the ground. In farmland, it is often seen perched on fences, where it can survey the fields for flying insects, and sometimes rides on the backs of sheep or cows, apparently taking advantage of the grazers’ movements to stir up prey in the grass.
These birds usually build their beautifully neat cup-shaped nests quite close to the ground, and often use artificial structures, such as buildings, machinery, and electrical wires and cables as a base. Both mum and dad incubate the eggs and feed the young.
The width of Willie’s white “eyebrow” can change, depending on his or her mood. When being aggressive, the bird may enlarge its eyebrows, whereas when it’s being submissive, the brow can be contracted or even concealed altogether.
Text © Richard Noske 2019 CC BY-NC-SA