Pipits, Wagtails & Longclaws: The Family Motacillidae

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 name Scientific name Distribution
Forest Wagtail Dendronanthus indicus Asia, India, Indonesia
White Wagtail Motacilla alba Europe, Asia, N.Africa, Indonesia
Japanese Wagtail Motacilla grandis Eastern Asia
White-browed Wagtail Motacilla madaraspatensis India, Parkistan
Mekong Wagtail Motacilla samveasnae Cambodia and Laos
African Pied Wagtail Motacilla aguimp Africa
Cape Wagtail Motacilla capensis Africa
Madagascar Wagtail Motacilla flaviventris Madagascar
Citrine Wagtail Motacilla citreola Central Russia to India
Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava Europe, Asia, Africa, Indonesia
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea N. Africa, Europe to Japan, Indonesia
Mountain Wagtail Motacilla clara Africa
Golden Pipit Tmetothylacus tenellus Africa
Yellow-throated Longclaw Macronyx croceus Africa
Fuelleborn’s Longclaw Macronyx fuellebornii Africa
Cape Longclaw Macronyx capensis Africa
Abyssinian Longclaw Macronyx flavicollis Africa
Rosy-throated Longclaw Macronyx ameliae Africa
Pangani Longclaw Macronyx aurantiigula Africa
Grimwood’s Longclaw Macronyx grimwoodi Africa
Sharpe’s Longclaw Hemimacronyx sharpei Africa
Yellow-breasted Pipit Hemimacronyx chloris Africa
Striped Pipit Anthus lineiventris Africa
Yellow-tufted Pipit Anthus crenatus Africa
African Pipit Anthus cinnamomeus Africa
Cameroon Pipit Anthus camaroonensis Africa
Mountain Pipit Anthus hoeschi 8382
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi Asia, Africa, India, Australasia
Paddyfield Pipit Anthus rufulus India east to Indonesia
Australasian Pipit Anthus novaeseelandiae Australasia
Plain-backed Pipit Anthus leucophrys Africa
Buffy Pipit Anthus vaalensis Africa
Long-legged Pipit Anthus pallidiventris Africa
Malindi Pipit Anthus melindae Africa
Tawny Pipit Anthus campestris Asia, Africa, Europe, India
Blyth’s Pipit Anthus godlewskii India, Tibet, Burma
Berthelot’s Pipit Anthus berthelotii Canary Is. Madeira
Jackson’s Pipit Anthus latistriatus W. Kenya, Uganda, Zaire
Long-billed Pipit Anthus similis Africa, Indochina
Woodland Pipit Anthus nyassae Africa
Short-tailed Pipit Anthus brachyurus Africa
Bush Pipit Anthus caffer Africa
Sokoke Pipit Anthus sokokensis Kenya, Tanzania
Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis Asia, Africa, India, Europe
Olive-backed Pipit Anthus hodgsoni Indochina
Pechora Pipit Anthus gustavi N. Siberia
Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis N. Africa, Asia minor, Europe
Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus Paleoarctic
Rosy Pipit Anthus roseatus Central Indochina
Rock Pipit Anthus petrosus Coastal W. Europe
Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta N. Africa, Europe to China
American Pipit Anthus rubescens E. Asia, N. America
Upland Pipit Anthus sylvanus Central Asia
Nilgiri Pipit Anthus nilghiriensis S. India
Correndera Pipit Anthus correndera S. America
South Georgia Pipit Anthus antarcticus S. Georgia Island
Sprague’s Pipit Anthus spragueii Mexico, USA
Short-billed Pipit Anthus furcatus S. America
Hellmayr’s Pipit Anthus hellmayri S. America
Paramo Pipit Anthus bogotensis S. America
Yellowish Pipit Anthus lutescens S. America
Chaco Pipit Anthus chacoensis Argentina, Paraguay
Ochre-breasted Pipit Anthus nattereri Brazil, Paraguay
Alpine Pipit Anthus gutturalis New Guinea

What Next

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

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Check Also
Back to top button