a web page by Don Roberson
PIPITS & WAGTAILS Motacillidae
  • 66 species in worldwide
  • DR personal total: 43 species (65%), 25 photo'd

The Motacillidae is a reasonably large family of (mostly) ground feeding birds found throughout open country across the globe. They occur from desert grasslands to alpine meadows to remote oceanic islands (e.g., South Georgia). About two-thirds of the species are pipits in the genus Anthus (42 per recent Clements checklist). Many are widespread Old World species, but there are Anthus pipits in South American grasslands at various elevations, and endemic species at such far-flung locales as South Georgia I. [South Georgia Pipit A. antarcticus] and the Sokoke Forest in coastal Kenya [Sokoke Pipit A. sokokensis].

The widespread species in North America is American Pipit (above and left), often called "Buff-bellied Pipit" in Old World literature. It is quite a different bird in habitat during the summer, when it breeds in alpine meadows above treeline (above) from Alaska to the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada. It also breeds on the arctic tundra, and there is a race (japonicus) that nests in northeast Asia. In winter, though, flocks of American Pipits descend into the lowlands of temperate North America and Asia, where they forage in grasslands, ag fields, and shorelines. In winter plumage (left) they are much less contrasty in pattern.

Most of the remaining members of Motacillidae are Old World wagtails in genus Motacilla (13 species), such as African Pied Wagtail, widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the Nile River valley (below; this individual in body molt with fresh black feathers replacing worn now-brown feathers). A very strange endemic species, quite unlike other wagtails but genetically embedded within genus Motacilla, is the remote and rare Sao Tome Short-tail M. bocagii in southernmost forests of São Tomé Island.

Those members of the Motacillidae called wagtails include 12 species in the genus Motacilla, and Forest Wagtail Dendronanthus indicus of the eastern Palearctic. About half of these wagtails are long-distance migrants but others, like Mountain Wagtail (right) of the African tropics, are mostly resident birds. Mountain Wagtail, and a fair number of other wagtails, are long-tailed motacilids adapted for feeding along rushing streams, surging rivers, or other wetlands. Over half of the world's wagtails are crisply patterned in black, white, and grays, making for striking patterns among the river-edge boulders. These include the recently discovered Mekong Wagtail M. samveasnae of southeast Asia (Duckworth et al. 2001). There are "river wagtails" that are patterned in black, white, and yellow, such as the widespread Gray Wagtail M. cinerea of the Old World. It is often found along rushing torrents and, like some of the species shown here, is proportionately long-tailed. Gray Wagtail, as do many wagtails and pipits, bobs its tails as it walks.
Those wagtails and pipits breeding at high latitudes are very migratory, and because they have long migration routes, mistaken trajectories by individual birds can spin off vagrants. Citrine Wagtail (left) is one of the long-distance migrants in the Old World, with an occasional exceptional vagrant that has turned up in the New World.
   Some birds can present significant identification challenges, and some have been controversial [see my "Monterey wagtails" page, created some years ago, for examples]. Taxonomy in wagtails had been in flux for some years. The AOU (1998), for example, considered Black-backed Wagtail "M. lugens" of northeast Asia to be a different species than the rest of the White Wagtail M. alba complex. Molecular evidence presented by Alström & Mild (2003) did not support this split; in due course the AOU relegated lugens to a race of M. alba. However, evidence discussed in Alström & Mild (2003) suggested that there are two biological species of Yellow Wagtail: Western Yellow-Wagtail M. flava (including subspecies flavissima, flava, beema, thunbergi, iberiae, cinereocapilla, pygmae, feldegg, lutea and leucocephala) and Eastern Yellow-Wagtail M. tschutschensis (including subspecies tschutschensis, taivana and macronyx). Under a phylogenetic species concept, such evidence could support ten (!) "species" in the Yellow Wagtail complex, many of them unrecognizable except as adult males. Fortunately, the split into two species of Yellow Wagtail, supported under the biological species concept, has now been widely accepted by global and regional checklists.

The White Wagtail complex shows great variation in plumages. This gallery presents 4 subspecies, 3 of them in breeding plumage and two in non-breeding plumage. Probably the best known subspecies is nominate M. a. alba, breeding from Iceland and Scandinavia to Turkey, and wintering from north & east Africa to sw Asia. Shown just below (upper) is a breeding male carrying food in Norway, and a November migrant (lower) along the Red Sea. The three examples shown at right represent 3 subspecies from central or east Asia:

  • upper right: race leucopsis in breeding plumage in spring migration; nests China to Korea & sw Japan, winters to north India & south Asia
  • middle right: race alboides in breeding plumage in spring migration; nests Himalayas from Pakistan to south China, winters India to n Thailand
  • lower right: race lugens in non-breeding plumage in fall migration; nests se Russia to n Korea & n Japan; winters s Japan to southeast Asia [this one a vagrant to California in November
Note variations in head pattern, back color, and upperwing coverts.

American Pipit (at top of this page) is the widespread pipit in North America. The other breeding pipit is Sprague's Pipit (left) of the northern prairie grasslands in the interior of North America, generally shy and retiring but giving song-flights on the breeding grounds. This young bird was a rare vagrant to Death Valley, California. In an age before digital photography and big lenses, I was able to get this shot by crawling on my belly on a golf-course where it was feeding.

Taxonomic and identification problems abound in the Old World pipits. Alström & Mild (2003) actually cover just 18 Holarctic pipits (only 43% of pipit species worldwide), but still account for over 200 pages of detailed text on taxonomy and identification. It can be an interesting challenge to distinguish between, for example, Red-throated Pipit (near right) and Tree Pipit (far right) on migration in the Sinai. I would not have sorted it out at the time had I not run into Bill Oddie, Killian Mullarney, and David Hunt in the Sinai in Nov 1981.

Pipits of open grasslands or sandy soils are distributed across these habitats globally. The five examples here are, counter-clockwise from top left:

  • Richard's Pipit — breeds central Russia to south China, winters in south Asia
  • Tawny Pipit — breeds southern Europe to Mongolia & Iran, winters north Africa, Arabia, and western India
  • African Pipit — widespread resident of east and southern Africa, sometimes called "Grassveld Pipit"
  • Australian Pipit — widespread resident in Australian, including the very barren center [here, one is panting in the heat]
  • Yellowish Pipit — a South American species, resident in open grasslands from Panama to Argentina
At one time, Richard's Pipit, African Pipit, Australian Pipit, and Paddlyfield Pipits (A. rufulus of south Asia) were lumped as the same species. Genetic evidence led to the splits, and there does not seem to be a close relationship between them (Tyler 2004).


The final group of motacilids in the family are seven species of Macronyx longclaws, a longclaw and a pipit in genus Hemimacronyx, and the closely related Golden Pipit Tmetothylacus tenellus. These are all grassland species of eastern and southern African. The best known is Yellow-throated Longclaw (right), resident in grasslands south of the Sahara and celebrated in books and museums for its resemblance to North America meadowlarks, which are completely unrelated icterids. Longclaws and meadowlarks illustrate a textbook case of convergent evolution. Other longclaws have limited distribution and frequent Brachystegia woodlands (e.g., Fuelleborn's M. fuellebornii) or montane grasslands (e.g., Abyssinian M. flavicollis, endemic to Ethiopia). Rosy-throated Longclaw (below) is very locally distributed in wet grasslands or seasonal floodplains, where it is generally shy and inconspicuous, despite its obvious beauty. It might be the most colorful motacillid.

Together, the pipits, wagtails, and longclaws present an interesting and challenging group. For a long time is was uncertain just where the Motacillidae fit in the grand scheme of bird families. Sibley & Ahlquist (1990), using early biochemical evidence, suggested they were closest to sparrows and weavers. That is basically where they've ended up taxonomically. Back then, though, no one would have guessed that the endemic Sao Tome Short-tail Motacilla bocagii, off the coast of central Africa, and the very unusual Madanga Madanga ruficollis of montane forest on Buru in the Southern Moluccas of Indonesia — and was once thought to be an odd white-eye — would to motacillids.

As a birder, pipits and wagtails have a habit of flying off or bob-tailing their walk away from the observer, leaving one puzzled, but engaged, by these enigmatic birds.


Photos: The American Pipit Anthus rubescens on its breeding grounds was on Hershey Mt., Alaska, on 8 July 2011; the wintering individual was at Moss Landing on 12 Dec 2015. The African Pied Wagtail Motacilla aguimp was at Mkomazi, Tanzania, on 6 June 2018. The Mountain Wagtail Motacilla clara was sunlighted over a dark river at Naro Maro on Mt. Kenya, Kenya, on 11 Nov 1981. The Citrine Wagtail Motacilla citreola was at Guwahati, Assam, India, in 15 Mar 2019. The European race of White Wagtail Motacilla alba alba was at Oslo, Norway, on 26 June 2013; the migrant M.a.alba was at Sharm-el-sheik, Sinai Peninsula, on 7 Nov 1981. The eastern races of White Wagtail are leucopsis in breeding plumage and alboides in breeding plumage, both on migration, along the Paro Chu River, Bhutan, on 2 Apr 2019; the migrant lugens was a vagrant at Santa Cruz, CA, USA, on 22 Nov 1920. The vagrant Sprague's Pipit Anthus spragueii was at Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley NP, California, on 11 Oct 1997. The Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus and the Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis were migrants at Sharm-el-sheik, on the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, on 7 Nov 1981. The Richard's Pipit Anthus richardi was at Pak Thule, Thailand, on 22 Dec 2012. The Tawny Pipit Anthus campestris was in Desert NP, Rajasthan, India, or 28 Mar 2001. The African Pipit Anthus cinnamomeus was at Angikaret, Tanzania, in 7 June 2018. The Australasian Pipit Anthus novaeseelandiae was panting along the Birdsville track, South Australia, on 20 Nov 2009. The Yellowish Pipit Anthus aguimp was at Emas NP, Brazil, in 28 July 2010. The Yellow-throated Longclaw Macronyx croceus was in Masai Mara NP, Kenya, in Nov 1981. The Rosy-throated Longclaw Macronyx ameliae was in the Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, in March 2007.

      All photos © Don Roberson; all rights reserved.

Family book:
Alström, P., and K. Mild. 2003. Pipits and Wagtails. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Pipits & Wagtails covers only the Palearctic species: 18 pipits and 10 wagtails — that's 42 percent of the now-current (2020) family. Yet, for Palearctic species, it is state-of-the-art. There is a lengthy introduction that covers molt, taxonomy, and species concepts; it has an excellent set of color maps of the Palearctic; it has 30 page of color plates by Per Alström & Bill Zetterström; another 30 pages of color photographs; and an extensive bibliography. That still leave 335 pages for the Species Accounts, each covering all the subspecies, with color range maps, detailed vocalization info, and sonogram. The authors are the world authorities on their topic, so it is a "must have" book for keen birders in at least the Old World. I used it here in the New World for authoritative advice on the identification of vagrant pipits and wagtails. It is primarily identification and taxonomy that is covered exhaustively. Indeed, for some readers, it will be too exhaustive! But I give it full five stars for essentially dominating its chosen field.

For the rest of family as it existed in 2004, see a lengthy introduction, with some excellent photos, in Tyler (2004). Even that compilation, though, will be missing Sao Tome Short-tail and Madanga.

Literature cited:

Alström, P., and K. Mild. 2003. Pipits and Wagtails. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Duckworth, J.W., Alström, P., Davidson, P., Evans, T.D., Poole, C.M., Setha, T. and Timmins, R.J. 2001. A new species of wagtail from the lower Mekong basin. Bull. Brit. Orn. Club 121: 152–182.

Tyler, S.J. 2004. Family Motacillidae (Pipits & Wagtails), pp. 686–786 in Handbook of the Birds of the World (del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott & D.A. Christie, eds). Vol. 9. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Sibley, C.G., and J.E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: a Study of Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.




  page created 13 Dec 2003, revised 28 Nov-22 Dec 2020  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved