The Aptly-Named Tailorbirds Are Extraordinary Seamstresses

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The tiny tailorbirds are endemic to tropical countries worldwide (Credit: Shantanu Kuveskar / CC BY-SA 4.0/ Creativecommons.org)

For most birds, nest-building entails creating a bowl-shaped receptacle of twigs and dry leaves. However, don't tell that to the common tailorbird (Orthotomus sutorius). The tiny birds, found in urban gardens across tropical ecosystems worldwide, go through extraordinary lengths to sew together a comfortable and safe home for their offspring.

The meticulous nest construction is a joint effort, with the females doing the stitching and the males fetching the material. The process begins with the female choosing a broad, durable, and supple leaf, preferably amid dense foliage and vegetation, to ensure the nest and eggs are camouflaged from predators. Upon finding the appropriate leaf, she wraps it around herself to ensure it is the right size, and adds an additional leaf or two if needed.

The nests are carefully sewn together by the female birds and then padded with soft grass and twigs (Credit: J.M.Garg / CC BY-SA -3.0/ Creativecommons.org)

Then begins the fascinating process of sewing the nest together. The tiny seamstress holds the leaf (or leaves) with her feet and then uses her long and slender needle-shaped beak to pierce a series of holes along the edge. The tiny perforations are designed to ensure the leaf holds its shape and doesn't brown. The female then selects, from among the materials fetched by the male, the perfect thread to stitch the leaf or leaves into shape. These range from plant fibers (such as cotton or lint) to silk from insects (such as cobwebs or caterpillar cocoons).

Each nest takes between two to four days to construct (Credit: Adityamadhav83 / CC BY-SA 3.0/ Creativecommons.org)

Though the resulting structure may appear fragile to the human eye, each nest contains between 150 to 200 stitches, making it almost impossible for the leaf to unravel. The sutures, which act like rivets and hold the leaf edges together, give the nest the shape of a deep cup, which is then lined with soft material to provide insulation for the baby chicks. The nest opening is draped with more leaves to protect the young birds from monsoon rains and harsh sun.

The North American hummingbird creates luxurious nests using plant fibers, downy feathers, and animal hair (Credit: Steve Berardi / CC BY-SA-2.0/Creativecommons.org)

Building the unique nests can take female tailorbirds anywhere from two to four days, depending on the setbacks encountered. These range from relatively minor ones, such as the "thread" breaking, to more catastrophic ones, such as leaf tears. In some cases, the issue can be easily resolved by selecting another thread or attaching a second leaf to the structure. However, if the damage is severe, the nest is abandoned and the arduous task restarted.

South American ovenbirds build dome-shaped nests using mud and manure (Credit: Charles J Sharp /CC BY-SA-4.0/ Creativecommons.org)

Tailorbirds are not the only avians who go through incredible lengths to build nests to protect their offspring. The industrious weaver birds braid grass leaves into intricate gourd-shaped nests, while the North American hummingbirds build their luxurious homes by binding together plant fibers, downy feathers, and animal hair with spider silk. The minimalist White Tern avoids building nests altogether, and instead lays its single egg on the knot or crook of a tree branch, while the South American ovenbirds use mud and manure to construct dome-shaped structures that resemble an old wood-fired oven.

Resources: birdlife.org, thainationalparks.com, thenhm.ac.uk

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158 Comments
  • meisdancer
    meisdancerWednesday, May 27, 2020 at 10:27 am
    Wow this is cool!
    • icemaster2010
      icemaster2010Monday, May 25, 2020 at 8:32 am
      I wonder if I could have one as a pet
      • am-olm1
        am-olm1Friday, May 1, 2020 at 8:42 pm
        AWSOME! I love this article, and I love DOGO
        • am-olm1
          am-olm1Friday, May 1, 2020 at 8:42 pm
          What if they learnt that from silk worms!
          • am-olm1
            am-olm1Friday, May 1, 2020 at 8:42 pm
            That is so cool!
            • c01e
              c01eWednesday, April 29, 2020 at 6:41 am
              Awesome !!! Wonder if they learned that from silk worms
              • jhlbj
                jhlbjMonday, April 27, 2020 at 1:42 pm
                I totally agree
                • musicislifejmay
                  musicislifejmaySunday, April 26, 2020 at 10:07 am
                  please make my dog a house bird!!🐶
                  • animalgirl_54
                    animalgirl_54Friday, April 24, 2020 at 1:39 pm
                    I wish I had one as a pet, I wonder where they learned how to do it....
                    • aemak
                      aemakFriday, April 24, 2020 at 12:44 pm
                      I can't even sow¡!!!!!!!!!