When birders attempt to render bird calls into English to make them easier to recall, sometimes the results can be somewhat surreal. It’s been said that the Catbird’s call is “Heeeere I aaaaare!”. The call of the Little Wattlebird has been given as “Fetch the gun! Fetch the gun!”, and some say the Spotted Pardalote is chattering “Tough Titty”. By comparison, “Sweet Pretty Creature” for the Willie Wagtail’s dominant phrase seems perfectly fitting.
The Willie Wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys) is Australia’s largest and most well-known fantail (the cutesy name means it is one of the first birds that children can reliably identify). It is also the most widespread, being found throughout the mainland. It is not found in Tasmania.
They are also conspicuous – feeding on the ground in wide open spaces (lawns, parks, paddocks, playing fields). They dart after insects in short, staccato bursts, always wagging their tail from side to side when they alight (to flush further insects, it is thought). Insects can also be taken in flight after short, acrobatic chases.
We think the Wagtail’s prominent, sharply-angled supercilium (eyebrow) always makes it appear a little belligerent:
Anecdotally, in the mythology of some indigenous peoples, the Willie Wagtail was thought to be an eavesdropper and a snitch – loitering at the edges of camps listening to conversations, and spreading the secrets it heard far and wide.
The nest of the Willie Wagtail is a small, neat cup of grasses and spider webs woven together, usually lined with whatever soft materials can be found. It has been reported that Willie Wagtails will even collect soft animal hair directly from the backs of animals if other soft material is in short supply. The nest can be re-used for a number of seasons, and we have read that a Willie Wagtail will sometimes deconstruct a nest and use the same materials to create a new one: knock-down and rebuild!.