Motacillidae – Longclaws, Pipits & Wagtails

Cape Longclaw Macronyx capensis ©Trevor Hardaker Website

The Motacillidae are a family of small passerine birds with medium to long tails. There are around 66 species in 7 genera and they include the wagtails, longclaws and pipits. The longclaws are entirely restricted to the Afrotropics, and the wagtails are predominantly found in Europe, Africa and Asia, with two species migrating and breeding in Alaska. The pipits have the most cosmopolitan distribution, being found across mostly in the Old World but occurring also in the Americas and oceanic islands such as New Zealand and the Falklands. Two African species, the Yellow-breasted Pipit and Sharpe’s Longclaw are sometimes placed in a separate genus, Hemimacronyx, which is closely related to the longclaws.

Wagtails, pipits, and longclaws are slender, small to medium-sized passerines, ranging from 14 to 17 centimetres in length, with short necks and long tails. They have long, pale legs with long toes and claws, particularly the hind toe which can be up to 4cm in length in some longclaws. There is no sexual dimorphism in size. Overall the robust longclaws are larger than the pipits and wagtails. Longclaws can weigh as much as 64g, whereas the weight range for pipits and wagtails is 15g – 31 g. The plumage of most pipits is dull brown and reminiscent of the larks, although some species have brighter plumages, particularly the Golden Pipit of north-east Africa. The adult male longclaws have brightly coloured undersides. The wagtails often have striking plumage, including grey, black, white, and yellow.

Most motacillids are ground-feeding insectivores of slightly open country. They occupy almost all available habitats, from the shore to high mountains. Wagtails prefer wetter habitats to most of the pipits. A few species use forests, including the Forest Wagtail, and other species use forested mountain streams, such as the Grey Wagtail or the Mountain Wagtail.

They take a wide range of invertebrate prey, especially insects, but also including spiders, worms, and small aquatic molluscs and arthropods. All species seem to be fairly catholic in their diet, and the most commonly taken prey for any particular species or population usually reflects local availability.

With the exception of the Forest Wagtail, they nest on the ground, laying up to six speckled eggs.

According to the IOC there are 66 species of wagtails, longclaws and pipits in just seven genera of the family Motacillidae; they are:

Forest Wagtail Dendronanthus indicus

Western Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis
Citrine Wagtail Motacilla citreola
Cape Wagtail Motacilla capensis
Madagascan Wagtail Motacilla flaviventris
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea
Mountain Wagtail Motacilla clara
White Wagtail Motacilla alba
African Pied Wagtail Motacilla aguimp
Mekong Wagtail Motacilla samveasnae
Japanese Wagtail Motacilla grandis
White-browed Wagtail Motacilla maderaspatensis

Golden Pipit Tmetothylacus tenellus

Sharpe’s Longclaw Macronyx sharpei
Abyssinian Longclaw Macronyx flavicollis
F├╝lleborn’s Longclaw Macronyx fuelleborni
Cape Longclaw Macronyx capensis
Yellow-throated Longclaw Macronyx croceus
Pangani Longclaw Macronyx aurantiigula
Rosy-throated Longclaw Macronyx ameliae
Grimwood’s Longclaw Macronyx grimwoodi

Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi
Paddyfield Pipit Anthus rufulus
Australian Pipit Anthus australis
New Zealand Pipit Anthus novaeseelandiae
African Pipit Anthus cinnamomeus
Mountain Pipit Anthus hoeschi
Blyth’s Pipit Anthus godlewskii
Tawny Pipit Anthus campestris
Long-billed Pipit Anthus similis
Wood Pipit Anthus nyassae
Buffy Pipit Anthus vaalensis
Plain-backed Pipit Anthus leucophrys
Long-legged Pipit Anthus pallidiventris
Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis
Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis
Olive-backed Pipit Anthus hodgsoni
Pechora Pipit Anthus gustavi
Rosy Pipit Anthus roseatus
Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus
Buff-bellied Pipit Anthus rubescens
Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta
Eurasian Rock Pipit Anthus petrosus
Nilgiri Pipit Anthus nilghiriensis
Upland Pipit Anthus sylvanus
Berthelot’s Pipit Anthus berthelotii
Striped Pipit Anthus lineiventris
African Rock Pipit Anthus crenatus
Short-tailed Pipit Anthus brachyurus
Bushveld Pipit Anthus caffer
Sokoke Pipit Anthus sokokensis
Malindi Pipit Anthus melindae
Yellow-breasted Pipit Anthus chloris
Alpine Pipit Anthus gutturalis
Sprague’s Pipit Anthus spragueii
Yellowish Pipit Anthus lutescens
Short-billed Pipit Anthus furcatus
Pampas Pipit Anthus chacoensis
Correndera Pipit Anthus correndera
South Georgia Pipit Anthus antarcticus
Ochre-breasted Pipit Anthus nattereri
Hellmayr’s Pipit Anthus hellmayri
Paramo Pipit Anthus bogotensis

Madanga Madanga ruficollis

Sao Tome Shorttail Amaurocichla bocagii

Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 66

Useful Reading
  • Pipits & Wagtails ? of Europe, Asia & North America

    by Per Alstr?m and Krister Mild ? Illustrated by Per Alst?m and Bill Zetterstr?m. Helm Identification Guides April 2003 ?48 See Fatbirder Review ISBN: 0713658347 Buy this book from NHBS.com

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