Sleeping behaviour of the Common Tailorbird

on 25th September 2010

“Birds are generally described as shy and wary creatures, especially towards human in a nation like Malaysia. Lying in the middle of South East Asia, Malaysia is a biodiversity-rich zone where feeding on wild animals is a common local practice. This has caused birds to be generally very wary of human presence even among the common garden birds that have long learnt to survive with humans.

“The Common Tailorbirds (Orthotomus sutorius) were previously photographed sleeping in the wild by some birders. The bird tucked its head into the body and fluff the feathers to form a ball, leaving its tail hanging out. Under such a condition it is in sound sleep. When both eyes are closed the bird goes into rapid-movement sleep rather than unihemispheric sleep where only one eye is opened. And birds are mostly found sleeping in trees where nocturnal predators will have difficulty locating them.

“On 11th August 2010 I was amazed to find such a Common Tailorbird sleeping in the balcony of my home in Kampar, Perak. It was perching on an 8-shaped clothes hanger that was on the hanging line. The bird was tucked up into a furry ball.

“I switched on the lights of the balcony and used my digital camera to take some macro shots as I carefully approached the bird. It was not affected by the light, neither was it affected by the camera’s flash. This could probably be because the eyes were well hidden inside the feathery ball.

“I was able to get very close until I could just grab it if I so wished. I photographed the bird with my fingers near it to show how close I got (left). This sleep was obviously making the bird extremely vulnerable to predators as it would not be aware should any approach it.

“During the night it woke up twice, the head popping out from the fluffy body but looking rather tiring. I now believe that it may be undergoing an unihemispheric sleep during that period but the eye facing me was opened and I had no means of checking the other side without alerting the bird. At midnight I attempted to carefully hang out my clothes (this is the only place I can hang my clothes). The bird was alerted and suddenly popped up its head from the fluffy ball and dashed out of my balcony.

“On 12th August 2010 (Thursday), I carefully checked the balcony again before I opened the window panels, and to my surprise, the bird did come back! And she was not alone. She brought her mate with her (below). During the night the male woke up and flew off while the female stayed the night.

“The birds have since been returning every night as long as their favorite hanger was available. There was at least one night they did not return because I used their favourite hanger to dry my wet clothes. But I did place another hanger there but they refused to use it. The male that was originally more wary of me would also sleep together with the female, however on some nights they would remain awake, giving out chirps but staying calm to eventually return to sleep.

“I did an experiment by setting up two similar hangers: the one with four clips on it was the one it chose, while the one with no clips was not chosen. I believe the birds view the clips as leaves or structures, thus appearing more natural than a bare hanger. The birds also chose the hanger at their favorite spot when a few more hangers were put out.

“Before 11th August, no such tailorbirds were ever seen sleeping in my balcony, although they had been heard chirping in the early mornings. A male Olive-backed Sunbird (Cinnyris jugularis) was around once. On 9th and 10th August, the pair of Common Tailorbirds were chirping during the evenings but when I approached to view them or tried opening the window panels, they flew off. Apparently on 11th August the blinds were closed and that might have encouraged them to sleep there.

“My continuous effort to show that I am not a threat encouraged the bird to sleep comfortably in my balcony every night. They would now arrive at around 7.10-7.30pm and begin to sleep if not disturbed, until around 7.00am the next morning. Should they see me heading towards the balcony with a pail of clothes, they would know that I was going to hang my clothes and would quickly fly off. On most occasions they would tolerate if I were 2-3 meters away. I would have to hide behind the blinds should I attempt to open or close the window panels when they were around. The male would fly off if I accidentally revealed my hands or otherwise alerted him. Now, he would fly up to the side of the balcony and if the threat was no longer there, would carefully fly back to the hanger and slowly settled down.

“I would usually sit around 5-6 meters away at my computer, my back facing them and they would generally be happy with it. Not when I was watching certain movies that involved fierce predators (horror movie for the tailorbirds). I once watched “Twilight: New Moon” on my computer and suddenly the tailorbirds woke up and chirped, hopped around in stress until I realised that they must have assumed that the werewolf in the show that were designed to look like real wolfs as a threat. I lowered the volume and after a while they got used to it and slowly went back to sleep.

“The birds are still in my balcony daily and I will do more observations and study their behavior. I wish that after some time they will allow me to hang my clothes without flying off and simply ignore me, like the friendly birds that I encountered in Auckland, New Zealand two years ago, where birds were respected and protected, hence not wary of human presence and very approachable.”

Tou Jing Yi
Kampar, Perak, Malaysia
22nd September 2010

If you like this post please tap on the Like button at the left bottom of page. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors/contributors, and are not endorsed by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM, NUS) or its affiliated institutions. Readers are encouraged to use their discretion before making any decisions or judgements based on the information presented.

YC Wee

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

Other posts by YC Wee

7 Responses

  1. Hi Tou, it is great to see you contributing to this great blog on bird behaviour. We
    hope to see more coming your way ….

  2. Been always wanting to do so, but very busy with my work, will try to find more interesting topics to write. Have lots of information that I would wish to share, especially on birds in the urban and suburban areas of Malaysia.

  3. It must be a wonderful treat to have 2 birds sleeping in your balcony. Your balcony must be very comfortable that the birds continue to sleep there.

    3 years ago, a pair of olive-backed sunbirds built their nest in one of my plants that was located outside my flat on the common corridor. The female will sleep in the nest during brooding. During the night, the bird will remain calm and sometimes opened her eyes to look at me while I water the plants.

    The nest was just 4 feet from the floor and I can be within touching distance of the bird. I always pretend not to look at the bird and perhaps this was what made the bird to feel safe. She will remain in the nest and continue sleeping after I was done with the watering.

    The brood was successful and the nest was reused by another pair of sunbirds after just 2 weeks. The sleeping behaviour was similar for the second female.

    I am as proud as the 2 pairs of successful olive-backed sunbirds, which resulted in 2 fledglings each time.

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