A touch of light: Artityerrityerre, willy wagtail



Photos © Mike Gillam

Like most of Centralia’s birds, willy wagtails call out their name in clearly recognisable Arrernte. Artityerrityerre, pronounced ahditcher-ditcher-da, certainly evokes the rapid fire call of the cheeky willy wagtail.

Artityerrityerre is considered by many Aboriginal people to be a messenger but also a gossip so you need to make sure they’re not around if you’re talking secret business.

The Arrernte bird poster by well known locals Veronica Dobson and MK Turner notes: “If you kill the willy wagtail it will bring on a very cold winter. It can make frost drop like steady rain all over everything and the wind blow; so don’t kill the Willy Wagtail.”

A law protecting Artityerrrityerre is easily enforceable because in truth the willy wagtail has charmed the hearts of humankind since the beginning of time.

Highly visible in the suburbs, the wagtail also enjoys success in arid environments where surface water is scarce and birds must rely on moisture contained in their insect food. During one very hot and dry summer I encountered such a scene – a solitary wagtail waiting patiently for the food to come to him.

Shaped by the elements, baked by summer sun and eroded from within by a heaving mass of maggots, the carcass formed a surreal landscape. Gaunt mountains rose from weathered cow hide stretched over bones and regions still bloated with gas hinted macabrely at pastures and rolling hills in desperate need of rain.

Two weeks earlier the dawdling and spotlight-dazzled heifer had been thrown high into the air by the truck’s bull bar, carried fifty metres and spun sideways onto the shoulder of the road. The short-horn’s death was immediate and the carcass was found just before sunrise by kites patrolling the highway looking for roadkill.

It took a vehicle winch to pull the beast away from the road in an effort to avoid further deaths. The crows and wedge-tailed eagles arrived soon after and their alternate feasting and skirmishing lasted a week.

Now a solitary willy wagtail was in charge, the eagles and crows long gone. This had nothing to do with the tiny bird’s fear of predatory malevolence. Quite the contrary, the oafish eagles and cumbersome crows were no match for Artityerrityerre.

Wagtails don’t eat carrion, however. The third wave of flies had begun to emerge a few hours earlier and the wagtail snapped them up with ease. Launching itself into the air, performing backflips and somersaults for the pleasure of the chase; always returning to its spot on the rib cage summit.

As his belly filled the tiny bird became more selective of his targets and less interested in taxing stunts. The fly pupae in reserve would keep the wagtails feasting for another week at least. 

In the lower levels the coleopterans were rapidly multiplying and other desert denizens from centipedes to geckos were arriving nightly to claim the tunnels and caverns of this new insulated citadel.

At midday the wagtail’s wife arrived and the two of them accounted for a fly every thirty seconds for the next hour before deciding to take a rest. First a drink was needed en route to the shade; a salve to cleanse that tickling at the back of the throat caused by the passage of so many fly wings.

The waterhole was located two hundred metres from the wagtails nesting territory in a dense forest of red gums that had miraculously escaped recent destructive fires. Nesting was always coordinated with a pair of magpie larks, often in the same tree but the larks always chose to be much higher up.

The presence of the larks afforded additional protection to the wagtails and vice versa. For all woodland birds the watchfulness and penetrating danger call of the larks rteye-rteye is life saving despite the prevalence of false alarms.

At this moment they were waiting for the larks to begin building their mud nest before commencing with their own. Nevertheless, the wagtail couple, paired for life, were hardwired for protection duties, nest or no nest.

Some years earlier they had produced three clutches of eggs, building a new nest on the third occasion after a pygmy goanna ate all fledglings from the second brood. Despite their bravery and vigilance, the loss of an entire brood was not unusual. The wagtails’ ability to defend against avian predators was unrivalled but they had no answer for the thick skinned snakes and goannas, less easily deterred.

On this day the wagtails drank and splashed on the water’s edge without concern, chasing a dragonfly half heartedly before retiring to the shade of the forest. From here they could watch the waterhole for intruders. The fly soup settled but the restless wagtails would not.

They sang a duet, pranced and fluttered their wings. The male showed his companion how he could frown and expand his white eyebrows and she jumped away in alarm. They perched with shoulders touching, all the while watching a procession of bird visitors to their waterhole.

Somewhere a strident call rteye-rteye rteye-rteye was quickly endorsed by the higher pitched chittering of white plumed honey eaters tyetyapweretye. Both wagtails tensed. The brown falcon landed a short distance from the waterhole and sauntered to the shoreline, wading into the shallows and shaking the dust from its feathers in anticipation of a splash bath.

The falcon was a lizard specialist but its resemblance to the terrifying harrier was provocation enough for the wagtails. They allowed the raptor a brief drink and then they came fast and low, chattering with intensity and working as a well practiced team. The falcon danced from foot to foot, head spinning but always facing the wrong way and feeling the wagtails clip the back of its head.

Nearby the urgent voice of the magpie larks was repeated over and over alerting the guild of woodland birds to the falcon menace. With backup on the way the wagtails increased pressure on the falcon, even digging their claws into the unfortunate intruder’s scalp. It was too much for the falcon.

The victorious duo gave chase, striking the falcon with bouncing kicks to the back and soon a posse arrived led by the magpie larks and including a black faced cuckoo shrike, two white plumed honeyeaters and an indeterminate number of yellow throated miners. Even a curious crow joined in, flying alongside the wagtails and they seemed content with its presence, a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend, for the moment at least.

Note: My use of Arrernte is drawn from  Eastern and Central Arrernte to English Dictionary, compiled by John Henderson and Veronica Dobson, IAD Press.


  1. Good on you Mike. Some sanity from somebody at last, in this era of drivel. Yes, pound for pound the Willy Wagtail is the bravest creature alive.

  2. Mike, I fondly remember a pair of Willy Wagtails that lived near the Rose Garden in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens when I worked there 47 years ago.
    The older and nearly retired gardener in charge of the Rose Garden would call to them and they would swoop in and land on the brim of his tatty felt hat, and keep him company all day long.
    As he dug the soil they would dive in for whatever tasty morsel was unfortunate enough to be uncovered by his spade or weathered hands. There was a kinship there that brought a smile to many passers by.

  3. I’m missing the willies at my place this year, and wondering where they have gone. We’ve always had a large number, nesting in the sheds, trees and even the verandah, but this year we’ve had none till recently. There were 2 sighted about 8 weeks ago and now there is only 1. Any ideas?

  4. Wonderful article Mike. In yesterday’s The Australian there was an article about the night parrot.
    As you probably well know, Shane Parker lived in the Alice in late 60s early 70s. At Stott House and Melanka.
    Shane’s sighting and hearing the night parrot while riding a camel down near Oodnadatta is well recorded.
    The Alice has been fortunate to have such great ornithologists such as Shane and your good self. Keep up the good work, mate.

  5. @ Pam Hooper (Posted June 11, 2020 at 3:43 pm): Hard to know why the Willy Wagtails are absent from your place, Pam, but at my home in the Old Eastside they are very rare visitors.
    The reason for this is that whenever a wagtail turns up at my place, the resident honeyeaters (bush canaries) take great exception, mob it and force the bird to flee.
    I’m lucky to see a Willy Wagtail at my home more than once in every two or three years yet I don’t have to wander far (such as near Anzac Hill or Olive Pink Botanic Garden) and can encounter Willy Wagtails no problem at all.
    It’s the only example I know of locally where Willy Wagtails have met their measure from another species of small bird.

  6. Mike, I hope your are compiling your little snippets especially “A touch of light” into a book.
    They are great. I pass them onto my friends in the US to learn about OZ in the Outback.
    Your photography and style of writing makes it very readable, so much information to learn.
    Well done. Keep it up please!


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