Why the wagtail is such an anxious creature (032)

In farming areas you will nearly always come across a few wagtails. A beautiful but nervous looking black and white bird. Have you ever wondered why the wagtail is  keeping an anxious eye on what is going on around him and why his tail bobs up and down the whole time? A violent theft is the answer.. To discover more about this dark deed, come and listen to my tale:

When animals were created, they were all given colours, legs, ears, eyes as well as numerous other essential parts. There were so many animals though, that at a certain moment there were no tails left. The mole and the fierce bear had to make do with a mini tail. When it came to the turn of a black and white bird, there were no tails left at all. He had to be satisfied with a tail-less stump for a rear end. That made him feel very miserable. He was ashamed of himself and thought he looked ugly.

In those days the wren was swaggering around with a magnificent long black tail. The black and white bird looked enviously at this splendor and dreamed he had just such an attractive long black rear end. Now that would look quite stunning set off against his black and white attire….He had far more right to it, because it was quite ridiculous that such a small round little bird should be sporting such beautiful tail feathers. He brooded on the matter until he came up with a plot. For days on end he waited for his chance. One sultry summer day while the wren was snoozing in some bushes, the black and white bird carried out his plan in a flash, stealing the wren’s  magnificent tail feathers. Then he fled to a remote farm. Somewhere far away where  nobody would find him.   With great care he stuck the long feathers onto his stumpy rear end. He was so chuffed with this beautiful new tail!  He paraded proudly around and admired himself in his reflection in the water.

But the price he has paid for the theft has been a high one: fear grips him every day of his life. He still lives in remote quiet areas. To this very day he is frightened that the wren  will take back his feathers when he is caught off his guard. This is why he is always looking nervously about to check if  there is any impending danger. He still keeps on flitting his tail up so that he can see if the long sumptuous feathers are still attached to his rear end. He owes his name wag  tail to this agitated behavior, a characteristic all his offspring have inherited.                                                            

And what about the wren? After his long black tail feathers had been stolen he was left with a small undertail. As the weight of the long feathers no longer weighed it down, it then sprung upwards. This small short upright tail is why we recognize the wren in a flash. He has long forgotten about the theft, because a small tail has its advantages: he can manoeuvre his way through dense undergrowth far more easily.

related stories: wren and owl


Yellow and white wagtail are common in rural areas throughout Europe. They prefer quiet surroundings rich in insects. The yellow wagtail prefers damp quiet areas, such as wet meadows, marshlands and riverbanks. The white wagtail is not so particular and can be found everywhere. In the Netherlands there are about 90,000 yellow wagtails and more than twice that number of white wagtails. In Belgium they are also very common birds in the countryside. Most of them migrate in the autumn to warmer climes. Only a few white wagtails stay and spend the winter in our country.


© Els Baars, Natuurverhalen.nl

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Els Baars