Bird Photography Challenge #55: Willy Wagtail

No prize for guessing what the Willy Wagtail (Rhipidura  leucophrys) owes its name to: the habit of wagging its tail from side to side when foraging on the ground.  This best known of Australian fantails is the bold and cheeky subject of our #55 Bird Photography Challenge.

What does it look like?


The largest of Australian fantails the Willy Wagtail is about 18 to 22 cms in length. The head, throat, back, wings and upper parts are black, and the belly is white, making it look like it is wearing a smart evening suit. It has prominent white eyebrows and whiskers. The eyebrows are raised as a display of aggression, and lowered as a sign of submission, particularly when two males meet during breeding season.

How does it behave?

It is an active feeder and can be seen darting around grassy areas as it hunts for insects on the ground such as beetles, spiders or in the air such as moths or flies.  When foraging on the ground, the tail is wagged from side to side and the wings are flashed, possibly to flush out its insect prey.  It can also be seen following large animals like cattle and sheep, often perching on their backs to catch insects they disturb.

It is fiercely territorial.  It can be quite fearless in the defense of its territory and will harass much bigger birds such as magpies, ravens, eagles, kookaburras if they approach the nest too closely.

9G5A2491The nest is a neatly woven cup of grasses, covered with spider webs on the outside and lined internally with soft grasses, hair or fur. I was lucky enough to spot the nest shown here first, then waited patiently for its owner to return.  It turned out to be a willy wagtail. It was surprisingly very tolerant of my presence. Eggs are incubated by both sexes and if conditions are favourable they may raise up to four successive clutches in one season.

The Willy Wagtail is very chatty and has a number of distinct calls in his repertoire, some melodious and others like its alarm call sounding a bit like a child’s rattle. It may explain its aboriginal name: Jitta Jitta.

Did you know?

Many Aboriginal people consider the Willy Wagtail  a gossip-monger and bringer of bad news, especially in Victoria. This belief has filtered into Australian myth; those in the bush regard him with suspicion and displeasure. In Aboriginal lore, if anything is being discussed he will be shooed away so he is out of hearing range before any business or conversation is resumed. Respect and discretion should always be practised in Jitta Jitta’s presence.

Another belief is if this little character makes a clicking sound, you will know there is important news coming your way; and in some tribes it was believed this bird was a direct messenger for the Great Spirit. Should this bird be harmed or killed, thus angering the Great Spirit, destructive storms would arise as revenge.

Where is it found?

Found throughout the mainland, the Willy Wagtail is however absent from Tasmania. It inhabits open forests and woodlands. It is almost always on the move.

The photos were taken in a variety of spots in Victoria, including Connawarre, Lake Borrie, the Serendip Sanctuary, the Gippsland Lakes and Point Cook reserve with a Canon 7dII and EF 100-400 mm lens, hand held. Click on any image in the gallery to display in full screen.

19 thoughts on “Bird Photography Challenge #55: Willy Wagtail

  1. Hi Guys
    Local aboriginal name for this species me thinks is djinta djinta, from the sound the bird makes, although I have found no other reference to this other than at the winery of the same name …hic

    • Hi there Trevor, there seems to be different spellings of the aboriginal word but you are right, all based on the sound the bird makes, or one of them anyway! Where is the winery?

  2. Always love your bird challenges – great fun to learn interesting facts like the aboriginal lore in this one. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I think they got the wagtail name from the similar appearance and behaviour to the European Pied Wagtail. Yours is definitely a fantail though and we don’t have those though I wish we did!! Beautiful birds 🙂 Lovely to see all these images of them! They seem most like our wagtails in the photo of them by the water. Our wagtails also wag the tail up and down rather than side to side!

      • My pleasure Chris! You’ve probably seen the pied wagtail on your visits to France. The American Robin was so-called because it had the red breast of the European Robin and was associated with winter. It’s actually a thrush, quite similar to the redwings that visit the UK in winter! They’re flocking birds so have a very different behaviour to the original robins which are incredibly territorial. I guess that when various countries and peoples started colonising various parts of the world, they gave names to things that were similar, as that familiarity often helps people cope with change. Australasia has so many species of birds, animals and plants that are so unique it must have been a relief for people when they saw things they recognised!

  4. When we had a land based house we had one little fellow serenade his love (every year) from the balcony railing. It always worked and when she had accepted him they woould both sing from the balcony together until she was otherwise engaged on the nest. The chatting is distinctive but it is the melodious song that I love.

    • What a lucky thing to have those making their home so close to yours! You are right Trish, the melodious song is gorgeous but I like the rattle too; it lets you know they are here!

  5. We have enjoyed your bird challenges and the benefit of your research and beautiful photography, Chris. A wagtail was close by tonight as we ate fish and chips for tea in a caravan park ! Thanks again. Doug.

  6. We have a resident pair at the golf course, wonderful creatures and so hyperactive. I worked with an aboriginal woman from the north coast who told me that in her mob the willy could also bring news of impending death in the family.. she was wary of them but I love them.

    • Yes it seems they are look upon with suspicion by the aboriginal people. There are all sorts of beliefs about the news they bring, which is interesting when these birds are so numerous … But I too love them, Sue!

  7. I love your photography and all the info you share… Fun to read about the folk lore… Such a tiny nest.. Or is it just that long tail hanging over..

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