The Cape wagtail is a fairly common and familiar bird in the gardens and urban areas of most of southern Namibia and South Africa. It is less common through the rest of its range, including Zaire, Angola and Kenya. It is believed to be very sensitive to the use of insecticides and this may well be the reason that its numbers are declining in some areas. This wagtail is not very colourful bird, clothed in dull grey and white, but is still somewhat attractive. Medium in size, slender, with a length of about 20 cm and a wingspan of about 65 cm, it is grey above and off-white below, with grayish flanks and a grey band on the breast. The bill, legs and feet are black. It has the longish tail, constantly wagging, that is characteristic of the wagtail family.
It is usually seen singly or in pairs, but it may form larger groups outside of the breeding season. It enjoys short grass and is therefore often found on lawns, walking purposefully as it forages for insects and wagging its tail vertically when standing still or when landing. It is often found close to water, along the shoreline or along the banks of rivers and streams, pools, parks and sewage works, and it may take insects and other prey such as tadpoles from the surface of the water. In urban areas it is often to be found foraging in gardens or paved areas such as car parks.
The Cape wagtail’s voice is a jumble of “tweep-tweep” notes, most commonly sung from a raised perch such as a rock, tree or building. The nest is a cup of grass, lined with hair and feathers on the bank of a stream, on the ground under a rock or under the eaves of a building. The female usually lays a clutch of 3 or 4 dull yellow eggs that hatch after an incubation period of about 14 days.
The scientific binomial for the Cape wagtail is Motacilla capensis; Motacilla from the Latin for a wagtail and capensis from the Latin meaning from the Cape. Thus the Cape wagtail. Names don’t come any clearer than that!