As children, we learn that birds build their nests out of twigs and dry grass, but the truth is that bird nest architecture varies greatly, as demonstrated by the tiny Tailor Bird, which uses as its beak as a needle to stitch a protective nest out of leaves.
Orthotomus sutorius, or the Common Tailor Bird, is a small, warbler-like songbird that lives in tropical Asia, but it’s not its singing that’s intriguing, it’s the bird’s nest building skills. It stitches one or two solid tree leaves together to create a cup that provides both a comfortable shelter and camouflage from predators. And when I say stitches, that is exactly what I mean. The female tailor bird uses its sharp beak as a needle to first pierce the leaves, then takes cobwebs or plant fibers and guides it through the holes as thread, until the pouch is nice and secure. It’s unclear how the tailor birds picked up this talent for sewing but it’s clear that it is passed on genetically.
Photo: Davidvraju/Wikimedia Commons
The tailor bird’s nest building process begins with the female picking out the right leaf or leaves. They need to be solid enough to sustain her and her chicks, so a dead leaf just won’t do. Then it has to be located at a certain height, about a meter above ground, and even then, the size of the leaves is important. The bird will first try to wrap itself inside a leaf; if it’s big enough on it’s own, the sewing process begins, if not, she will have to use extra nearby leaves to build the nest, or find a better location. Leaves at the end of branches are ideal, as they prevent the chances of predators reaching the nest.
Once the right location is spotted, the female tailor bird will use her feet to pull the leaf or leaves together and puncture the edges with her beak. She then carefully threads plant fibers or cobwebs through the holes, dozens, even hundreds of times, until the pouch design is complete. The nest doesn’t unravel, thanks in part to the coarseness of the thread material used, but also to the complex stitching patterns. A nest can reportedly have between 150 to 200 stitches.
Tailor birds also appear able to deal with accidents, such as tears in the leaves during the building process, with the females carefully adding more stitches or even extra leaves in affected areas to ensure that the camouflage is perfect. If the damage proves irreparable, they just start over, recycling materials from the first attempt. Once the nest is ready, they will just fill it up with feathers and plant material to prepare it for the incubation of the eggs.
This amazing nest building technique of the common tailor bird is just one of the many amazing natural behaviors we’ve featured in the past. For more, check out, the shimmering defense mechanism of giant honeybees, or the mind-control technique of the Zatypota wasp.