The Willie Wagtail is one of many Australian birds with black and white plumage and carries the same message that balance is important. The name wagtail comes from his constant sideways wagging of the tail. The Willie Wagtail is found throughout mainland Australia (but not Tasmania) as well as New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, the Bismarck Archipelago and the Moluccas. Willie Wagtails are found in most open habitats especially open forests and woodlands, water-courses and of course, wherever humans live.
Willie Wagtails are active feeders around backyards as they hunt for insects on the ground busily wagging their tails. Willie Wagtails also catch insects in the air. Although it is active in defending its territory, the Willie Wagtail is very tolerant and tame around humans, often feeding and nesting near houses and human activity. This live-and-let-live attitude does not extend to other birds, and the little Willie Wagtail can often be seen harassing much larger birds like the Kookaburra, Magpie and even the Wedge-tail Eagle. The Willie Wagtail reminds us that “it is not the size of the dog in the fight, it is the size of the fight in the dog” as these little birds successfully and fiercely defend their territory from interlopers. Willie Wagtails can intimidate much larger birds because of they are intelligent and know that a surprise attack from the rear is always much more frightening. Willie Wagtails always attack from behind and can seriously harass other birds that come within the Wagtail’s designated territory.
The Willie Wagtail is a chatty bird with a number of distinct sounds in its conversational repertoire and is represented in folklore as the stealer of secrets. When you see one you are being reminded that if you have a secret, it is only a secret if no-one else knows. Aboriginal tribes in parts of south-eastern Australia see the Willie Wagtail as the bearer of bad news and believe that the Willie Wagtail could steal a person's secrets while lingering around camps eavesdropping, so women would be tight-lipped in the presence of the Willie Wagtail. In the Kimberley region, the Willie Wagtail is a tell-tale who will even tell the spirit of the recently departed if living relatives spoke badly of them.
The Willie Wagtail is rarely still and is always on the move, looking around, ready to pounce on his next insect meal; even when perching his tail is in constant motion reminding us to be aware and ready for the next opportunity even while working on our current task.
Another lesson to learn from the Willie Wagtail is adaptability. The adaptability and opportunistic diet of this little bird have helped it to not only survive but thrive, as humans take over more and more land for our suburban sprawl. It eats everything it can catch including butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, dragonflies, bugs, spiders, centipedes, and millipedes, and has even been seen killing small lizards such as skinks and geckos. In Bougainville Island, one story tells how the Willie Wagtail is intelligent and opportunistic, because the Willie Wagtail won a contest among all the birds to fly the highest by hitching a ride on the back of the eagle. In New Guinea, Willie Wagtails are a good omen and if they come and visit you when you till a new garden, then there will be a good crop.
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