Quick facts

Common name: tree pipit

Scientific name: Anthus trivialis

Family: Motacillidae (wagtails and pipits)

Habitat: woodland edges, open glades and clearings, heathland and grassland with scattered trees

Diet: invertebrates in summer, seeds and berries in autumn and winter. Chicks are fed caterpillars and small, soft insects

Predators: foxes, badgers, stoats, weasels and hedgehogs, as well as raptors

Origin: native

What do tree pipits look like?

Male and female tree pipits both look similar, with matching streaky olive-brown or sandy backs, pale or buff breasts with black flecks and creamy-white bellies. Their legs are pink with a short rear hind claw, and their bill is dark with a pink base.

Juveniles look similar to adults, but are browner in colour and their feathers have darker centres and pale buff or white edges, making them look a bit frilly.

Not to be confused with: meadow pipits. Both adult and juvenile tree pipits are small and brown, and can be difficult to distinguish from their cousin, the meadow pipit. The tell-tale sign is when they start to sing, especially from their treetop perch.

Credit: Jose Luis Gomez De Francisco / naturepl.com

What do tree pipits eat?

Tree pipits prefer to eat small invertebrates like insects – particularly beetles like weevils – as well as caterpillars, flies and earwigs, spiders and snails. They supplement this with fruits – especially berries and seeds during the colder months.

Look out for them foraging on the ground, though they will also chase their food along branches in the trees.

Chicks are fed caterpillars and soft insects.

Did you know?

When migrating, tree pipits travel during both night and day. You might hear their calls as they pass overhead.

Do tree pipits migrate?

Yes – tree pipits are long-distance migrants that spend winter in sub-Saharan Africa. And they travel some serious distance, with records showing they migrate as far north as Iceland and as far south as Mauritania.

They arrive back in the UK between April and May, with most getting here during April, and spend summer here before heading back to Africa during August and September.

Credit: Buiten Beeld / Alamy Stock Photo

How do tree pipits breed?

Tree pipits are ground-nesting birds, and the female builds a cup-shaped nest using dry grass, moss and hair that's nestled among grassy tussocks, bracken or brambles. She’ll typically lay four to six eggs during May, which she’ll incubate for 12 to 14 days. Chicks are fed by both parents and will fledge after another 12 to 14 days. The pair will then repeat the cycle with a second brood.  

Did you know?

Tree pipit nests are often parasitised by cuckoos, meaning tree pipit parents raise cuckoo chicks rather than their own chicks.

Where do tree pipits live?

Tree pipits are most common in the north and west of Britain, including Wales, England and Scotland, as well as the Isle of Man. They’re very rarely found in Northern Ireland but are sometimes recorded on their migration journey.

They prefer the edges of birch or oak woodlands, especially where they border moorlands, as well as glades and clearings in broadleaved and conifer woodland. They also pop up on heathland and grassland with scattered trees and bramble scrub.

Signs and spotting tips

Tree pipits are unassuming little birds and can be hard to spot – until they start singing from the treetops and swirling through their courtship flight. Males will launch themselves up from the branches before stiffening their wings and falling gracefully back into the tree while belting out their distinctive song of high-pitched trills, pulses, buzzes and descending scales. This is the best way to tell them apart from their cousins, the meadow pipits.

They can also sometimes be found foraging for food on the ground or in scrub.

Tree pipit song

Listen out for a flowing, melodic series of buzzes, trills and scales. Their call is an explosive ‘spiz’ or ‘speez’.

Credit: Loic Poidevin / naturepl.com

Threats and conservation

Tree pipits have faced dramatic decline since the 1970s and are now on the red list of UK birds. Despite having something of a stronghold in the north-west and Wales, these areas have seen big declines, and there are a number of reasons for this, not least the structural changes in many of the UK’s forests and woods and possible issues faced during migration.

Discover more about the UK's woodland birds