1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Wagtail

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WAGTAIL (Wagsterd and Wagstyrt, 15th century fide T. Wright, Vol. Vocabularies, ii. 221, 253; Uuagtale, Turner, 1544, p. 53), the popular name for birds of the subfamily Motacillinae, which, together with the Anthinae (see Pipit), form the passerine family Motacillidae.

The pied wagtail Motacilla lugubris is a common and generally distributed species in the British Islands, and common throughout northern Europe, but migrating southwards over a relatively narrow range in winter. The white wagtail, M. alba of Linnaeus, has a wide range in Europe, Asia and Africa, visiting England almost yearly, and chiefly differing from the ordinary British in its lighter-coloured tints — the cock especially having a clear grey instead of a black back. Three other species occur in England, but the subfamily with several genera and very many species ranges over the Old World, except Australia and Polynesia, whilst the Asiatic species reach North- West America.

Wagtails are generally parti-coloured birds, frequenting streams and stagnant water, and feeding on seeds, insects, worms, small molluscs and crustaceans. The bill is thin and elongated, and the tail is very long. The nests are made of moss, grass and roots, with a lining of hair and feathers; four to six eggs are laid, bluish white or brown, or yellowish with spots and markings.

The genus Motacilla (an exact rendering of the English “wagtail,” the Dutch Kwikstaart, the Italian Codatremola and other similar words), which, as originally founded by Linnaeus, contained nearly all the “soft-billed” birds of early English ornithologists, was restricted by various authors in succession, following the example set by Scopoli in 1769, until none but the wagtails remained in it.

(A. N.)