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Tailorbirds: Songbirds, Skilled Homemakers and Loving Protectors of Their Young

Updated on January 2, 2019
Casey White profile image

Dorothy is a Master Gardener, former newspaper reporter, and the author of several books. Michael is a landscape/nature photographer in NM.

This photo shows a nest that was lovingly stitched together by a tailorbird using fibers from various places.  The nest is created by "sewing" two or more leaves together, creating a cone-like environment in which to  place material to create a nest.
This photo shows a nest that was lovingly stitched together by a tailorbird using fibers from various places. The nest is created by "sewing" two or more leaves together, creating a cone-like environment in which to place material to create a nest. | Source

A Mother's Love

When a female tailorbird builds a nest in which to lay her eggs, she does it with the precision of a skilled seamstress, carefully stitching leaves together to form a cone or pouch of sorts in which to place nesting materials. She does so to conceal and protect her eggs, and eventually her babies, from predators, just as any mother would do.

And, she does it all without the use of a needle, relying only on her beak to intricately create the stitching so that it is strong enough to hold her precious nest and her young until they are able to make it alone.

To avoid predatory nest robbers on the ground such as lizards, mongooses or snakes, the tailorbird builds their nest high in a tree. Often, however, when they do choose to build the nest on the ground, it is constructed deep in a thicket away from predatory birds, such as crows.

Darzee the Tailorbird

Rudyard Kipling created the character Darzee, a tailorbird, in the fictional classic called "The Jungle Book," in which all of the characters were animals. The common or long-tailed tailorbird is one of 11 species in the genus Orthotomu. They are found across tropical Asia.

A black-headed tailorbird.
A black-headed tailorbird. | Source

The Stitching Process

The first thing a tailorbird does is find a large leaf deep in the middle of a bush or tree. The two outer edges of the leaf are carefully brought together in order to form a pouch. The female bird uses her long, needle-like bill to punch precise holes along both edges of the leaf. Once the holes are punched, the bird begins the stitching process using fibers such as the silk from spiders or plant fibers that she has gathered. The material is pushed through the holes and the edges of the leaf (sometimes two or more leaves are used) are drawn together, which begins to form the pouch-like home for her nest.

The ends of the fibers fray naturally, which creates a stable cradle in which to house the nest, which is then built by both the female and male tailorbird, who mate for life.

A tailorbird gathering stitching material from which to create a nest.
A tailorbird gathering stitching material from which to create a nest.

A Skilled Insect Hunter

The tailorbird is as skillful when hunting for food as it is when building a nest. One of the places it lives is in the dense undergrowth in the forest. Using thick underbrush as cover, it looks for insects in a small area, then quickly hops through a clearing to the next area of underbrush, being ever aware that it could fall victim to the predatory crow, mainly because of its weak, erratic flying skills. Open areas are always avoided whenever possible.

During its hunt for food, which appears to be a tireless effort, the tailorbird hops about with its tail cocked high and constantly wagging back and forth from side to side. The search for food is a ceaseless operation for these little birds as they creep around the underbrush using their bills just like a pair of forceps picking up beetles, spiders, caterpillars and other bugs. That long beak allows them to dip deep down into flowers to drink the sugary nectar, which they sometimes enjoy.

During rainy seasons, they are provided food by the huge swarms of flying termites, although they must wait on the termites to land and shed their wings because of the tailorbird's poor flying skills. The termites make a good meal for the adult birds to feed to their babies, hopefully aiding them in reaching adulthood.

A Hungry Bunch

A tailorbird feeding an obviously hungry brood of fledglings.
A tailorbird feeding an obviously hungry brood of fledglings. | Source

Life Among the Humans

Surprisingly, when the tailorbird lives in an urban area around people, it is relatively tame and seems to be unafraid. Normally, the tailorbird is constantly fidgety, always on the move, but this small, hard-working, curious bird has adapted very well to being around people and has actually benefitted from jungle clearances, which have been detrimental to many other animals.

The mass of scrubby underbrush that is left behind is a perfect place to hide nests and hunt for insects so these birds thrive when other animals might not. Their only threat in the clearance process is the possibility that the underbrush might be cleared as well as the trees.

Tailorbird Appearance

There are several different species of tailorbirds, each with its own distinct look. Luckily, their plumage, in various shades of brown, green, orange, black and grey, provides concealment as they forage in the undergrowth for food. Outside of the breeding season, a female tailorbird's plumage is almost identical to that of the male. But, during the breeding season, a male's tale is about two inches longer than that of the female. After nesting, both female and male molt and the male loses his extended feathers.

A tailorbird's bill is long, slender and only slightly curved toward the tip. The beak is strong, enabling the female bird to stitch together even the toughest leaves for nest building. The wings of a tailorbird are short and rounded and on its feet are three forward-facing toes and one single hind toe.

Considered a small bird, tailorbirds range from about 5-7 inches long with a wingspan of approximately five inches. They weigh less than a half an ounce, so they are quite small in comparison to many other birds.

The wingspan of the tailorbird is about five inches and in length, they range from about five to seven inches. They weigh less than a half an ounce, so they are quite small in comparison to many other birds.

Photo of a male tailorbird attending to his young.
Photo of a male tailorbird attending to his young. | Source

The Female Tailorbird Doesn't Do It Alone

She may stitch the leaves together but the male and female tailorbirds mate for life and are always in constant contact, having a peculiar call to each other that is a constant sound in the tropical areas where they are found.

Tailorbird pairs usually breed between the months of February and May, but the actual breeding season is during the entire year. After the pair mates, the female starts building the nest, with it taking her two or three days until completion. The male, during that time, defends the pair's territory from other tailorbirds. The male also helps the female construct the nest, gathering grass, cotton, animal hair and feathers. Both of the birds incubate the clutch, then both bring food later to the nestlings, which is a job that keeps them busy at all times until the babies fly off on their own in a few weeks.

So, it might not take a village, but the female bird relies on her mate for constant support and assistance until the babies leave an empty nest.

Tailorbird Species and Conservation Status*

  1. Common Tailorbird - Least Concern
  2. Ashy Tailorbird - Least Concern
  3. Dark-necked Tailorbird - Least Concern
  4. Rufous-tailed Tailorbird - Least Concern
  5. Olive-backed Tailorbird - Least Concern
  6. Rufous-headed Tailorbird - Least Concern
  7. Yellow-breasted Tailorbird - Near Threatened
  8. Grey-backed Tailorbird - Least Concern
  9. Philippine Tailorbird - Least Concern
  10. Black-headed Tailorbird - Least Concern
  11. Rufous-fronted Tailorbird - Least Concern
  12. White-eared Tailorbird - Least Concern
  13. Green-backed Tailorbird - Least Concern
  14. Cambodian Tailorbird - Near Threatened
  15. Long-billed Tailorbird - Critically Endangered
  16. Mountain Tailorbird - Least Concern

*The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classification.

© 2018 Mike and Dorothy McKenney


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    • Casey White profile imageAUTHOR

      Mike and Dorothy McKenney 

      2 years ago from United States

      Thank you, Linda. I found them very fascinating.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      What an interesting article! You were right about the video—it is amazing. I enjoyed learning about the tailorbird and watching the video very much.


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