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Issue 15: the seamstress of the bird world
Extraordinary needlework in – and on – nature.
Like 22million+ other people, I was captivated by that Instagram video of a sewing bird! Using its beak as a needle and plant fibres as thread, it turned flat leaves into a cone and built a nest inside it. Incredible!
The talented species in question is the common tailorbird (Orthotomus sutorius). Its Latin name translates as ‘straight-cutting cobbler’ or ‘shoemaker’.
It's a small, highly active songbird that lives in large populations across South and Southeast Asia. Its leaf-sewing skills can be found in several other species that belong to the same Cisticolidae family of warblers.
While the common tailorbird is regularly spotted in gardens and parks, and its song part of the daily soundtrack of its local habitats, seeing one of its crafty nests is rare. They are an ingenious technique to keep chicks camouflaged and safe from predators.
The nests are generally built in trees or shrubs about a metre off the ground, within thick foliage. Cleverly, the bird uses the upper side of the leaf as the outer side of the cone, making it even more difficult to spot.
A natural historian, Captain W W A Phillips, wrote to a colleague (as recounted in a Smithsonian Institution board report) that it had taken him nine years to find a tailorbird's nest. "The species is common enough but is such an adept at concealing its nest that it is very difficult to find it."
The female tailorbird is the seamstress of the species.
London’s Natural History Museum says she “wraps the leaf around herself to make sure it is the right size. If it isn't, she adds another one or two leaves”, and that “a single nest can contain between 150 and 200 stitches”.
As well as plant fibre, tailorbirds are known to use insect silk, or even human-made threads, for their stitching material. Short lengths might pass through just one hole on each leaf edge. Longer ones are weaved back and forth through multiple holes. In some instances, instead of pulling the ‘thread’ tight to create a closed seam, the stitching is looser and forms more of a net. The frayed ends of certain stitching materials act as a knot, preventing it from slipping back through the holes.
Once the leaves are stitched, the birds pad them with fine grass and other soft materials such as animal fur and feathers, to form the nest inside.
The female lays between three to five eggs, which take around 12 days to incubate. (The male feeds the female while she sits on the eggs, and they both share chick-raising duties.) The chicks live in the nest for about three weeks before fledging.
And then, all that remarkable avian craftsmanship is (as Casey A Wood described in the Smithsonian Institution board report) left to "die and shrivel up… the neglected cornucopia-like structure disintegrates under the influence of wind and weather."
Related: Some other leaf stitching I’m fascinated by is that of artist Hillary Waters Fayle. Her intricate embroidery is stunning!
She says: “I want this work to ask people to slow down and think about this leaf – what beauty can be achieved when working with care.”