Willy Wagtails

by Chris, Leon, Ben, Callam and Jade

3rd November 2005


What are they?

Willy Wagtails are birds which means they can fly, they have beaks, they have three toes, they have scaly feet, feathers and they lay eggs.

Their scientific name is Rhipidura leucophrys.



This pencil drawing is by Jade (8yrs).


What they look like

Willy wagtails are black and have white chests and eyebrows. The males have bigger eyebrows than the females. The babies are paler and have white stripes on their head. Jade thinks the babies’ beaks are yellow and red and the mums’ and dads’ are black. They have sharp eyes, which are useful for spotting their food. Their tail is quite large and it looks like an old-fashioned hand held fan. An adult willy wagtail is about 20 cm long. They often sit wagging their tail, which is where they got their name.

What they sound like


A willy wagtail sounds a bit like “chitti-chitti” which is an aboriginal word for willy wagtail. The town of Chittering in Western Australia is probably named as ‘place of the willy wagtails’.


Where they live

Willy wagtails live everywhere in Australia except very wet rainforests. They like rainy places and woodlands where there is leaf litter. They also like grass because their food lives in it so if you want to attract willy wagtails to your house, plant some grass.

How they live  

Willy wagtails live in pairs or on their own but sometimes they live in groups in the winter, even with other birds.  

Willy wagtails eat bugs, insects and tiny caterpillars. They get them off branches and off the ground. They wag their tails to scare the insects which fly up and the willy wagtails catch them in their beaks. This makes a loud snapping noise. The adult willy wagtails take food to their babies in the nest.  

Willy wagtails make their nests out of twigs, grass and hair and cover it with spider webs. This sticks it really well to the branch, making it safer for the babies. Inside the nest is warm and cosy because the eggs have to be incubated in a warm place. The mum and dad put soft grasses, hair and fluff in the nest. Willy wagtails recycle their old nests. Leon has seen them use parts of the old nest to build a new one.  

They lay about three eggs in a clutch at any time of year but usually between August and February. It takes about two weeks for the eggs to hatch. The babies stay in the nest for another two weeks. The parents can have up to four sets of babies in one breeding year and the babies stay with the parents until the next lot of eggs are laid.  

The parents take turns sitting on the nest and finding food. We observed each parent sat on the nest for about 15 or 20 minutes and then it was the other one’s turn. The father didn’t come back on time on one occasion we saw, and the mum got off the nest and flew around the tree chittering and waiting for the father to come back. He didn’t come back so she got back on the nest. When they are sitting on the nest they stay still, moving their heads to look out for predators. Some people saw the birds turning the eggs over to keep them warm all over.  

When the babies poo they do it into the mother’s beak so she can take it somewhere else and drop it on the ground. This is so snakes and lizards won’t realize there is a nest in the tree above. This protects the babies from being eaten. Willy wagtails have enemies like cats, snakes, lizards, dogs, silver gulls and bird flu.  

They are protective and aggressive of their eggs and babies. We are observing the willy wagtails at school from a distance and through the glass window. When we tried to sneak close to the nest to take a photo the parent birds got angry. They swooped and chittered angrily.

The birds preen in the nests, even the babies.


Our Kerry Street Willy Wagtails


We have two pairs of willy wagtails nesting at Kerry Street . In the nest around the back of the school, three babies have hatched about on 28th October. We think we saw a beak and heard the babies in the nest in the courtyard today, 3rd November.  

We feel really proud that we have willy wagtails at school. We like them and we made sketches of them. We have been writing down observations about them for a few weeks.




Observations of Kerry Street kids and parents and teachers

Eric McCrum - Naturalist

Photographs taken by authors




Kerry Street Home Page; Willy Wagtails Home Page