Off the Beaten Path – Willy Wagtail

For this feature, we thought we would give you somthing unconventional – a bird that is not normally associated with Crows and Ravens, but shares many characteristics both scientifically and mythologically.

The Willie (or Willy) Wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys) is a passerine bird native to Australia, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, the Bismarck Archipelago, and eastern Indonesia. It is a common and familiar bird throughout much of its range, living in most habitats apart from thick forest. It is unrelated to the true wagtails of the genus Motacilla; it is a member of the fantail genus Rhipidura and is a part of a ‘core corvine’ group (the super family Corvoidea) that includes crows and ravens, drongos and birds of paradise. The Willie Wagtail is the largest, and most well-known, of the Australian fantails. It wears a snappy little black and white suit and sports a pair of white eyebrows which make it look rather like an angry old wizard.

The Willie Wagtail is insectivorous and spends much time chasing prey in open habitat. Its common name is derived from its habit of wagging its tail horizontally when foraging on the ground. Aggressive and territorial, the Willie Wagtail has no qualms about standing up to much larger birds such as the Laughing Kookaburra and Wedge-tailed Eagle.

Despite this, Wilie Wagtails are considered friendly and cheerful creatures and the sight of them brightens the heart of many Australians. They are common in urban areas and are tolerant of human activity, even becoming semi-tame. Willie wagtails have a noisy scolding call when disturbed, but otherwise have a sweet, fluting call that is recognisable. They have been known to call endlessly on nights when the moon is bright.


The Willie Wagtail hops into your life to remind you to be cheerful! Much nourishment can come from taking the time to present yourself as cheerful and gregarious to others, even if you’re not particularly feeling either. The Wagtail serves to remind us that when you reach out to others with cheerfulness, others will often reach out with the same warmth and a smile. If you experiment by smiling warmly to children or strangers while shopping or walking, you will be surprised by how many take the time to smile back. Even when you are feeling angry, or tired, or downtrodden, it is always possible to smile at a stranger, or to receive one free of charge. As the Wagtail often brings a smile to the most hardened of hearts, so he helps you to share this gift with others.

Chances are, if Willie Wagtail energy is around, you may not actually be feeling that friendly! The Willie Wagtail itself is an extraordinarily territorial bird, and for its diminutive size, can irritably swoop and attack others (including people) to get them away. This bird is one of those guides who teaches us how to self-generate positive energy, no matter how much we don’t feel like it, we are reminded that it doesn’t take very much to get us feeling a glimmer of hope or happiness again.  It is through curiosity that we find out about the greater world around us, and as a trait, it can help us to locate more nourishing sources of energy, particularly those that make us feel good. It is curiosity about a stranger that can lead us to making a new friend. Curiosity about places can help us to find new sites to visit and new ways to create positive memories for ourselves.

In the aboriginal legend of the Wallaroo and Willy-Wagtail, several members of the animal kingdom are slowly disappearing as they bravely go searching for the last of the Wallaroo. The Wily Wagtail – a wise old shaman in this story – seeks out the old Wallaroo and offers to find his relatives for him, and, with this intention, started on his way. When he had gone a short distance the Wallaroo offered him a boomerang as he had offered the others before him. The willy-wagtail was very suspicious about his intention, and said: “Throw it to me; it will save me the trouble of walking back to the tree.”

The Wallaroo then threw the weapon with all his strength, but the willy-wagtail was prepared, and, as soon as the boomerang left the hand of the thrower, he jumped quickly aside. When the Wallaroo saw he had missed his mark, and that his evil intentions were known to the willy-wagtail, he became furious, and threw all his spears  at him, but failed to strike him. Then the willy-wagtail took the boomerang and threw it at the old Wallaroo. It struck him a heavy blow on the chest and killed him. He then skinned him, and prepared to cook his flesh, but he was too old and tough to eat. He now took the skin and returned to the camp. When he told the tribe of the fate of their brothers they were sorely grieved, but their grief was turned to joy when the willy-wagtail showed them the skin of their enemy. The wagtail was rewarded by being made a headman of the tribe.

The headmen now decided that Blackfellows (a euphamism for the Aboriginal Australians) should never travel alone. As a mark of remembrance, Wallaroos have always had a strip of white fur on their breasts. It is an indication of the boomerang wound that killed the old Wallaroo of Mountain Ridge.


Modern Day

In Australia, willie wagtail will often hop into your life literally, flying a few metres (or feet!) away from you in your own garden, or fluting and chattering nearby if you take the time to walk around the suburbs and parks. As they are such intelligent, curious birds, it is not hard to get the sense that they are looking directly at you, wondering as much about you as you are about them!