Saturday, March 23, 2013

The yellow wagtail

The yellow wagtail is a common spring and autumn migrant. It is often seen in flocks especially at dusk when one can see them flying in the direction of reed-filled valleys where they roost. During the day it can be seen picking insects from the ground in fields and other open areas especially in valleys with water courses.

There are several races of yellow wagtail. These normally live in different areas but in Malta they can often be seen together. The male birds of the various races have different head colour which makes it easy to tell them apart but the females are similar and can be assigned to a particular race by simple observation.

The yellow, which is known in Maltese as isfar, is one of three species of wagtail that visit the Maltese islands. It breeds throughout most of temperate Europe and Asia as well as in Alaska. Most birds migrate to Africa and south Asia but some populations in Western Europe remain in the breeding areas throughout the year.

The other two species of wagtail that can be seen in Malta are the white wagtail (zakak abjad) and the grey wagtail (zakak tad-dell). The white wagtail is very common during the autumn and winter months. It can be seen throughout urban areas and in the countryside. The grey wagtail is also seen during the winter months but it is a very shy bird and often flies away with a typical loud call when disturbed.

Wagtails are characterised by their long slender body and by their constant waging of their tail. This characteristic is poorly understood and there are various theories about why it occurs. It has been suggested that it may flush up prey, or that it may signal submissiveness to other wagtails. Recent studies have suggested that it is a signal of vigilance to deter potential predators.

This article was published in The Times on 30 September 2009.

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