Bird Watcher's General Store

“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”


Dear Bird Folks,

A friend showed me a video clip of a “tailorbird” building a nest and I was totally amazed. Have you ever heard of tailorbirds and do you know anything about them?

– Rick, Groton, MA


Not until recently, Rick,

Like you, I had never heard of tailorbirds, but then I received a photo of one of these odd birds from Gary. Who’s Gary? Gary is a customer who emails us a new bird photo every Saturday morning. He calls it the “Bird of the Week.” As soon as we hear the email chime, we all try to guess what this week’s bird will be. (This is as exciting our day gets.) Casey has guessed it right a few times, but I never have (grrr). Then, a few Saturdays ago we heard the chime, made our guesses and opened Gary’s email. Whoa! It was a bird we had never seen before. The caption said it was a “tailorbird,” whatever that is. As we all stared at the photo, a snippy customer hollered at us from across the room, “Quit playing with your iPad and get to work!” I spun around with a glare and shot back, “Don’t ever interrupt us during ‘“Bird of the Week.”’ It didn’t slow the guy down (whom I knew, of course) and he went on to make a few more wisecracks. But I didn’t pay attention; I was too busy looking up tailorbird, and here is what I found.

It is thought tailorbirds are related to Old World warblers, with most of them found in tropical Asia. Exciting stuff, eh? Don’t worry; it gets better. Unlike our colorful New World warblers, Old World warblers are dullards. Instead of being bright yellow or blue or orange, Old Word warblers tend to be dressed in assorted shades of brown and gray…looking as if they all shop from the L.L. Bean catalog. There are over a dozen different species of tailorbirds in Asia. Some have green backs and a bit of chestnut on their heads, and cute upturned tails, but that’s as flashy as they get. What makes tailorbirds so interesting is not what they look like but what they do. As their name suggests, tailorbirds can actually sew. Yes, you read that right. (Betsy Ross had nothing on these little birds.) I know some of the folks reading this right now are skeptical and I was too when I first read about it. So, after I dealt with the pushy customer from the opening paragraph (who really is a nice guy), I went back to my iPad and watched a video (perhaps the same one you watched, Rick) of a tailorbird building a nest. Wow!

Here is how it works. When the female tailorbird decides to build her nest, she doesn’t look for a hole in a tree, or an overhang on a building or an isolated thicket. Instead, she seeks out a small tree or bush with large leaves. She then proceeds to take one of the largest leaves and fold it around herself, like she is cuddling with a blanket. This by itself is pretty cool, but then something even crazier happens. Using her sharp beak, the female makes a series of evenly numbered tiny holes along both edges of the leaf. Finally, using plant fiber or spider web silk (and this is true) she joins the two edges together, carefully pushing the “thread” through one hole and into the corresponding hole on the other side, as if she’s stitching up a football or fixing a pair of ripped jeans. At first, I thought I was watching some kind of trick video, but a quick search online produced many similar clips. I was totally impressed and for the rest of the day I showed every customer who walked in the door the video of the tailorbird in action. Most folks were amazed, too, but a few just nodded. They’ve long ago learned to doubt whatever I say, and with good reason, but not this time.

After all the sewing has been completed, the female tailorbird assembles a more traditional nest, filling the inside of the folded leaf with soft grasses and a few feathers. Why does she go through the trouble of sewing up a leaf? I think it’s all about adding another layer of protective camouflage to hide her nest. And her hard work appears to be paying off, as the population of the Common Tailorbird is doing quite well. It’s too bad they only live in Asia. I would love to have them in my yard. Not only would they be fun to watch, but I have a pair of jeans that needs mending in the worst way.

I know you’ve seen the video of a tailorbird in action, Rick, but I think everyone else reading this should check it out as well. I want people to know that everything I wrote is true, and since that doesn’t happen very often, I don’t want to let this opportunity go to waste.


On a different topic:

Over the past few weeks I’ve received a steady stream of questions about a mysterious birdcall heard at night. The call is described as a plaintive single note, repeated over and over. One lady said it reminded her of the sound a cordless phone makes when the battery is dying. Well, guess what. These mysterious calls aren’t coming from birds or even batteries. They are produced by tree frogs, most likely spring peepers. In the spring, peepers pour into vernal pools by the thousands and create a deafening chorus of calls. By fall they have all dispersed into the surrounding woods. What we are hearing now is a single frog (peeper) making a single note all by itself. Anyone fooled by these frogs shouldn’t feel bad. It happens every fall. Even Casey used to think they were birds, but don’t feel bad for him either. At least he occasionally guesses the “Bird of the Week” correctly, which is something I’ve never done (grrr).