A familiar sound along many of the waterways of southern Africa is the sustained “tsip weet-weet” of the African pied wagtail, a song that is easily recognized once initially identified. As is the bird itself. Pied in clean white and black, the African pied wagtail is a smallish bird with a length of about 20 cm, which makes it the biggest of the wagtails found in southern Africa, and it has the typical long tail of the wagtail family, which it wags up and down characteristically. Predominantly white, it has black upperparts and a broad black band across its breast; eyes are brown, legs and feet black. The males and females have similarly coloured plumage.
They are usually solitary or found in pairs or small groups and are a delight to watch as they walk briskly along the ground or hopping from rock to rock looking for insects, running forward when a likely morsel is spotted and sometimes leaping into the air to catch a low flying insect. And of course, when pausing, and also after landing, the long tail bobs up and down as if the bird cannot otherwise retain its balance.
In addition to frequenting the rocks and sandbanks of rivers and streams, the African pied wagtail makes itself at home in closer contact with humans and can be found at sewage ponds and open areas of tended grass such as golf courses, parks, and gardens, where it can become quite tame. It feeds mainly on insects, but will also take breadcrumbs and other tidbits from birdfeeders provided by obliging humans.
The African pied wagtail is monogamous and it builds a cup-shaped nest that is lined with grass and feathers, usually mounted on a foundation of leaves and roots that is located on a riverbank in a convenient tangle of sticks. Closer to human habitation the nest may be located on the roof of a building, or on a ledge or windowsill. The female lays a clutch of 3 or 4 greyish-white eggs that are lightly marked with brown and that hatch after an incubation period of approximately 13 days. The wagtail is parasitised by both the Red-chested cuckoo (Cuculus solitarius) and the Diderick cuckoo (Chrysococcyx caprius).
The scientific binomial for the African pied wagtail is Motacilla aguimp; Motacilla from the Latin for a “little mover” and aguimp from the French for “with a wimple” – wimple being the name of the cloth worn over the head and around the neck and ears by women in years gone by, and in this context referring to the black feathers on the head, neck and sides of the face of the African pied wagtail. Thus its name translates as a little mover wearing a wimple, which seems entirely appropriate.