Pipits, Wagtails & Longclaws: The Family Motacillidae

Motacillidae (Pipits, Wagtails & Longclaws)

The passerine family Motacillidae contains six genera of birds:

  • the Pipits (Anthus and Tmetothylacus),
  • Wagtails (Motacilla and Dendronanthis) and
  • Longclaws (Macronyx and Hemimacronyx).

The Pipits and Wagtails have a world-wide distribution, except for the islands of the pacific – but the Longclaws are restricted to Africa.

The family is believed to be relatively modern with the oldest fossil records dating from the Miocene 6-7 million years ago.

All members of this family are relatively small to medium sized, but often very attractive, birds. Body length ranges from 12.7 cm to 22.2 cm (5 to 8.75 inches).

All species fly well and many are strongly migratory, particularly those that breed in the northern hemisphere. (The distributions mentioned in the below checklist are for the most part breeding distributions and do not cover over wintering distribution).

The Wagtails are generally the more colourful of the groups and are more associated with water, especially in the breeding season.

Although Yellow Wagtail, Moticilla flava, is also associated with herds of cattle where it can be seen running around the feet of the large herbivores feeding on the insects disturbed from the grass by the grazing cattle.

Some species are also commonly associated with human habitations and villages and even breed inside buildings.

Wagtail Bird
Pied Wagtail, Motacilla alba sits on a branch

Identification of the species of Motacilla is easier than for Pipits, although they have markedly different summer and winter plumages. They are slim birds with 10 primaries (albeit the 10th is minute) and their nostrils are not covered by feathers.

The Longclaws are closely related to the pipits but are larger and more colourful. They also have elongated hind claws and in the Yellow-throated Longclaw, Macronyx croceus this tendency reaches its extreme with the hind claw being twice the length of the rest of the foot (5 cm or 2 inches in length).

The Pipits make up the largest portion of the family and are birds of the open grassy areas, often common in the alpine zone.

They are all fairly similar in shape and colouration and identification without a good view is difficult. Far easier is identification by song, as all species have unique calls and songs.

Pipits are characterised by the presence of thin pointed bills, medium to long legs, plumages that are brown to buff with varying degrees of streaking.

Most species have little or no seasonal variation, the exceptions being Water, Buff-bellied, Rosy and some Rock Pipits. Like the rest of the family they are slim birds with 10 primaries and their nostrils are not covered by feathers.

All species are active lively birds that are a pleasure to watch. They have interesting courtship involving much chasing, particularly the White Wagtail, M. alba and a tendency to collect into small, and sometimes large, flocks outside of the breeding season.

All members of the family are insectivorous, although some of them will take other invertebrates as well.

They are linked by their common general shape and their dislike of perching in trees. They fly quickly or walk and run along the ground and over rocks.

The Tree Pipit, A. trivialis, and the Olive-backed Pipit A. hodgsoni distinguishes themselves by using trees to sing from and the Forest Wagtail (Dendronanthus indicus) is quite unique in that it prefers to live in forested areas where it forages along the ground, but nests in a tree.

longclaw bird orange
Cape Longclaw (Macronyx capensis) shows off its beautiful orange throat

Otherwise the members of this family nest on the ground in a simple cup nest and the number of eggs laid seems to depend on latitude, with more northerly breeders laying up to 7 eggs. A second brood is quite common.

Taxonomically the family is at times quite confusing, with experts arguing about subspecies and their validity as species.

This is particularly bad in the:

  • Long-billed Pipit, A. similis, with 16 or more subspecies,
  • Yellow Wagtail, M. flava, with 13 or more subspecies,
  • Richard’s Pipit, A. richardi with 12 or more subspecies and
  • White Wagtail, M. alba, with 8 subspecies.

The number of world species is therefore somewhere between 65 and 75.

Checklist of Motacillidae

For a list of species and their breeding distributions see the below Checklist of Motacillidae.

Common nameScientific nameDistribution
Forest WagtailDendronanthus indicusAsia, India, Indonesia
White WagtailMotacilla albaEurope, Asia, N.Africa, Indonesia
Japanese WagtailMotacilla grandisEastern Asia
White-browed WagtailMotacilla madaraspatensisIndia, Parkistan
Mekong WagtailMotacilla samveasnaeCambodia and Laos
African Pied WagtailMotacilla aguimpAfrica
Cape WagtailMotacilla capensisAfrica
Madagascar WagtailMotacilla flaviventrisMadagascar
Citrine WagtailMotacilla citreolaCentral Russia to India
Yellow WagtailMotacilla flavaEurope, Asia, Africa, Indonesia
Grey WagtailMotacilla cinereaN. Africa, Europe to Japan, Indonesia
Mountain WagtailMotacilla claraAfrica
Golden PipitTmetothylacus tenellusAfrica
Yellow-throated LongclawMacronyx croceusAfrica
Fuelleborn’s LongclawMacronyx fuelleborniiAfrica
Cape LongclawMacronyx capensisAfrica
Abyssinian LongclawMacronyx flavicollisAfrica
Rosy-throated LongclawMacronyx ameliaeAfrica
Pangani LongclawMacronyx aurantiigulaAfrica
Grimwood’s LongclawMacronyx grimwoodiAfrica
Sharpe’s LongclawHemimacronyx sharpeiAfrica
Yellow-breasted PipitHemimacronyx chlorisAfrica
Striped PipitAnthus lineiventrisAfrica
Yellow-tufted PipitAnthus crenatusAfrica
African PipitAnthus cinnamomeusAfrica
Cameroon PipitAnthus camaroonensisAfrica
Mountain PipitAnthus hoeschi8382
Richard’s PipitAnthus richardiAsia, Africa, India, Australasia
Paddyfield PipitAnthus rufulusIndia east to Indonesia
Australasian PipitAnthus novaeseelandiaeAustralasia
Plain-backed PipitAnthus leucophrysAfrica
Buffy PipitAnthus vaalensisAfrica
Long-legged PipitAnthus pallidiventrisAfrica
Malindi PipitAnthus melindaeAfrica
Tawny PipitAnthus campestrisAsia, Africa, Europe, India
Blyth’s PipitAnthus godlewskiiIndia, Tibet, Burma
Berthelot’s PipitAnthus berthelotiiCanary Is. Madeira
Jackson’s PipitAnthus latistriatusW. Kenya, Uganda, Zaire
Long-billed PipitAnthus similisAfrica, Indochina
Woodland PipitAnthus nyassaeAfrica
Short-tailed PipitAnthus brachyurusAfrica
Bush PipitAnthus cafferAfrica
Sokoke PipitAnthus sokokensisKenya, Tanzania
Tree PipitAnthus trivialisAsia, Africa, India, Europe
Olive-backed PipitAnthus hodgsoniIndochina
Pechora PipitAnthus gustaviN. Siberia
Meadow PipitAnthus pratensisN. Africa, Asia minor, Europe
Red-throated PipitAnthus cervinusPaleoarctic
Rosy PipitAnthus roseatusCentral Indochina
Rock PipitAnthus petrosusCoastal W. Europe
Water PipitAnthus spinolettaN. Africa, Europe to China
American PipitAnthus rubescensE. Asia, N. America
Upland PipitAnthus sylvanusCentral Asia
Nilgiri PipitAnthus nilghiriensisS. India
Correndera PipitAnthus correnderaS. America
South Georgia PipitAnthus antarcticusS. Georgia Island
Sprague’s PipitAnthus spragueiiMexico, USA
Short-billed PipitAnthus furcatusS. America
Hellmayr’s PipitAnthus hellmayriS. America
Paramo PipitAnthus bogotensisS. America
Yellowish PipitAnthus lutescensS. America
Chaco PipitAnthus chacoensisArgentina, Paraguay
Ochre-breasted PipitAnthus nattereriBrazil, Paraguay
Alpine PipitAnthus gutturalisNew Guinea

What Next

Well, perhaps now you’d like to learn a little about the Mousebirds.

Photo of author

Gordon Ramel

Gordon is an ecologist with two degrees from Exeter University. He's also a teacher, a poet and the owner of 1,152 books. Oh - and he wrote this website.

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