Family Pipits and Wagtails (Motacillidae)

Least Concern

White Wagtail (Motacilla alba)


French: Bergeronnette grise German: Bachstelze Spanish: Lavandera blanca

Motacilla alba


, 1758,



Thought to be closely related to M. maderaspatensis, M. grandis and M. aguimp, all of which formerly often regarded as races of present species, and with recently described M. samveasnae; recent analyses of mitochondrial DNA, however, suggest that M. aguimp possibly more distantly related. Geographical variation marked and complex, and three separate clades recovered by mitochondrial DNA study, which sampled races alba, personata, baicalensis, leucopsis, lugens and ocularis#R. Races often divided into four groups (as in HBW) based mainly on breeding range: “alba group” (including also yarrellii, persica, dukhunensis, personata, baicalensis), “alboides group” (with leucopsis), “lugens group” (with ocularis), and single-taxon “subpersonata group”, but here all distinctive taxa (some of which have been regarded as species) are treated individually, rather than grouped geographically, irrespective of differences; subpersonata recently emerged as oddly divergent from other taxa in complex, but more research proposed before any new arrangement adopted#R. Widespread intergradation occurs where races meet, and frequent co-occurrence evident in non-breeding quarters; lugens and personata often ranked as full species, but former appears to intergrade and interbreed with both leucopsis and ocularis, and latter with dukhunensis, alboides and baicalensis. Moreover, the described taxa persica and dukhunensis may be only inter-racial hybrids, perhaps better included in nominate. Proposed race frontata (described from Xiamen, SE China, where probably only migrant) provisionally included in leucopsis, but possibly of hybrid origin. Other named races include forwoodi (described from Abd al Kuri I, W of Socotra), synonymous with nominate; and albula (Khasi Hills, in NE India), considered inseparable from alboides. Eleven subspecies currently recognized.

Subspecies and Distribution
  • M. a. yarrellii Gould, 1837 – British Pied Wagtail – Britain and Ireland, possibly also N parts of W Europe; partial migrant, winters S to NW Africa.
  • M. a. subpersonata Meade-Waldo, 1901 – Moroccan Wagtail – NW Africa (W Morocco).
  • M. a. alba Linnaeus, 1758 – White-faced Wagtail – SE Greenland (irregular), Iceland, Faroe Is and throughout continental Europe (has bred Britain and Ireland) E to Urals, Turkey and Levant; winters in S part of range and S to W & E Africa, Arabia and SW Asia.
  • M. a. dukhunensis Sykes, 1832 – C Russia (Ural Mts E to Taymyr Peninsula) S to Caucasus, NW Iran, Kyrgyz Steppes and foothills of Altai Mts; winters Middle East E to Indian Subcontinent.
  • M. a. persica Blanford, 1876 – NC & W Iran (S Elburz Mts, Zagros Mts).
  • M. a. ocularis Swinhoe, 1860 – Siberian Wagtail – N & NE Siberia (E from Taymyr Peninsula and R Yenisey, S to Lensk region, Stanovoy Mts and N Kamchatka) and extreme NW USA (W Alaska); winters S Asia E from NE Indian Subcontinent.
  • M. a. personata Gould, 1861 – Masked Wagtail – C Asia from Transcaspia and N Iran E to S Russia (W Sayan Mts), W Mongolia, extreme NW China (NW & W Xinjiang) and S to N Afghanistan, N Pakistan and Kashmir; winters Iran and E Arabia E to Indian Subcontinent.
  • M. a. baicalensis Swinhoe, 1871 – Baikal Wagtail – SC Siberia (upper R Yenisey E to Stanovoy Mts) S to Mongolia and NE China (NE Inner Mongolia); winters N India E to SE China and C Indochina.
  • M. a. lugens Gloger, 1829 – Black-backed Wagtail – SE Russia (from S coasts of Sea of Okhotsk, Sakhalin, C Kamchatka and Commander Is) S to N Korea and Japan; winters Myanmar E to SE China, Taiwan and S Japan.
  • M. a. leucopsis Gould, 1838 – Chinese Wagtail – C & E China (Qinghai E to Heilongjiang and W Zhejiang, S to N Guangxi and N Guangdong), Russian Far East (Amurland, Ussuriland), Korea and SW Japan (SW Honshu, N Kyushu); winters S Asia E from N India.
  • M. a. alboides Hodgson, 1836 – Himalayan Wagtail – Himalayas (E from NE Pakistan), S China (S Xizang, S & SE Qinghai E to S Shaanxi, S to Yunnan and Guizhou), N Myanmar, extreme N Laos and extreme N Vietnam; winters in foothills and S to Bangladesh and N Thailand.
  • Descriptive notes

    16·5–18 cm; male 20–24·6g, female 17·6–21·9 g (to 27·9 g when laying). Male nominate race in breeding plumage has mid-... read more


    Song a warbling twitter of repeated slurred “zit”, “psit”, “ziti... read more


    Very wide variety of non-forested wet and dry habitats, including seashores, rocky or sandy upland... read more

    Food and feeding

    Food includes wide range of small terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates, ranging from weevils (Curculionidae) and other beetles (Coleoptera... read more


    Mostly early Apr to Aug, starting later in N; late Apr to mid-Jul in S & SE Europe, Apr–Jun in Morocco and May to early Aug in S... read more


    Most races regular long-distance migrants; others partial migrants or largely resident. In Europe,... read more

    Status and conservation

    Not globally threatened. Generally common throughout its breeding and non-breeding ranges; locally very common or abundant. Estimated European population over 12,000,000... read more

    Recommended citation

    Tyler, S. (2020). White Wagtail (Motacilla alba). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from on 21 February 2020).