Long-tailed Tailor Bird


7:.e Long-tailed or Common Tailor Bird is a tiny creature, possessing all of the acrobatic charm typifying so many insectivores. No one could charge the cisticolas, wrens and titbabblers of this world with being too gaudy. But like the tailor birds, and hundreds more species besides, what they all lack in color, they amply make up for with their abundant activity in their quest for live food.

The Long-tailed Tailor Bird is one of 364 species that are contained within the 60 genera of Sylviidae, the widespread and complex family of Old World warblers. These are true warblers, not to be confused with the so called New World warblers which are a completely unrelated group, differing in both their habits and their anatomy. The warblers of the New World possess nine functional primary feathers, which, in fact, give them a closer affinity to certain tanagers and emberizine finches, whereas their Old World namesakes have 10 such feathers. Further, few of the New World warblers can be said to "warble" in the truest sense of the word, such as is common among their Old World counterparts. A definition of warbling as given by Webster is: "singing in a trilling manner, softly and quaveringly with rapid modulations in pitch."

Traditionally in Syluiidae, taxonomists have included the sub-families of Malurinae (the Australian wrens), and Polioptilinae (the gnatcatchers), contributing to it 24 and 10 members respectively. Therefore, literature has often awarded Sylviidae 398 members. But nowadays, this rather jumbled family is clarified with the pro-

motion of both Malurinae and Polioptilinae to full family status. In addition, the 10 gnatcatchers of Polioptilinae have been expanded by three gnatwrens; namely: Collared (Microbates collaris), Half-collared (Microbates cinereiventris) and the Long-billed (Ramphocaenus melanurus). Therefore, as presently assayed, Sylviidae has 364 members, Maluridae 24 and Polioptilidae 13.

The genus Orthotomuscomprises 12 recognized species: two forest warblers and 10 tailor birds. The Redcapped Forest Warbler (Orthotomus metopias) and the Long-billed Forest Warbler (Orthotomus moreaui) restrict themselves to East Africa, occupying only Mozambique and, for the most part, Tanzania. In sharp contrast, with their 50 recognized subspecies, the 10 tailor birds have populated both the tropics of southeast Asia as well as the cooler climes of the Himalayas.

Most of the Old World warblers are dull brown or green birds, protectively colored to enable their small bodies to blend into the scrub and undergrowth that often provides a home.

When fully stretched out, and including the bill, the Long-tailed Tailor Bird measures about 4-3/ 4" (12.06 cm) with a full 1-1/2" (3.8 cm) of this taken up by the tail. The upper tail coverts, rump and back are olive green; this blends at the crown with a rufous forehead. The wings are also olive green but with their undersides a slightly paler color. The light silverygray ear coverts merge with the olive body at the neck and give way to a pale green-brown breast and belly. Although the sexes are alike, a male


may be identified by his marginally larger head and body with his tail becoming about one inch longer in the breeding season.

The Long-tailed Tailor Bird has a loud song which Deignan called "rather annoying." It is repetitive, and in the heat of the tropics would be irritating. But on an occidental summer day it is nothing less than entertaining. In rapid succession the call is fired off slightly more than twice a second, sounding a "ch twee", sometimes so close to the next it can sound like a "chip'.'

Although rare in aviculture, Ortbotomus sutorius is widespread through much of Asia and is, in parts, quite common. It comprises nine recognized sub-species whose territories take in the western Himalayas (O.s. guzuratus), northern India (O.s. guzuratusand O.s.patia), Nepal (O.s. patia), Assam (O.s. luteus) and Burma (O.s. patia and O.s. luteus). Collectively, they form an unbroken belt joining the Himalayan lowlands to the jungles and cities of southeast Asia. In addition, the Long-tailed Tailor Bird has populations in southern China (O.s. longicauda) and western China (O.s. inexpectatus) as well as Sri Lanka (O.s. sutorius and O.s. fernandonis), Malaysia (O.s. maculicollis) and the Indonesian island of Java (O.s. edela). This bird's range covers some of the coldest regions on earth, but in all cases it has managed to find and make its home in the tropical refuges that exist in these wastelands.

Most of southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent have monsoon weather, with alternate wet and dry seasons such as those found in northeast Assam, Burma and Indonesia. Together with Sri Lanka and Malaysia they share the same tropical temperatures, but night fall brings a comparative chill throughout the mountainous regions found in all of these countries. During winter, the mountain temperatures in Burma and Assam may even drop to freezing. Because of the chill brought on by high altitudes, the tailor birds in these countries reside at lower levels not normally exceeding about 1,500 meters. Here they can find tolerable temperatures all the year round.

Although sometimes a little low, the night time temperatures of such countries cannot compare with the subarctic and polar conditions of the Himalayas, in which northern India 

and Nepal find themselves. Most of Nepal is covered by the Himalayan Mountains, bringingwith them cool, wet summers and dry, cold winters. In the south of Nepal though is the Terai. This is a strip of tropical jungle and swamp which provides the home for the Long-tailed Tailor Bird, with the species also existing across the border in India and north-westwards, in the warm foothills of the western Himalayas.

China also offers climatic diversity, playing host to Mount Everest, the Gobi desert and the rich farmlands of the south. In eastern China, the Chinling Shan range forms the northern boundary to the Szechwan Basin, a land of warmth and humidity. The temperatures are not quite tropical, but influenced by nearby Burma, Laos and Vietnam, they are taken above 70°F (21°C). Yunnan province lies south of Szechwan, and between them they form much of the habitat for the southern Chinese race of Longtailed Tailor Bird. Stretching into western China, the tailor bird leaves the lower Himalayan slopes of northern India for the Turfan Depression, an oasis on the edge of the Takla Makan desert. Here the western Chinese race of tailor bird lives; geographically isolated from other races, it is protected from extremes of weather by the depression which is the lowest point in China.

The tailor bird is not strictly a jungle dweller, but instead a denizen of scrublands and forest perimeters, pref ering their bright open spaces that allow it more easily to chase and catch insects. Indeed, in many parts this bird's fondness for open spaces has enticed it into even the biggest of urban areas, showing little fear and ignoring the dangers around it.

In August 1990, I spent three weeks in Malaysia, traveling northwards starting from Kuala Lumpur. Like most capital cities, Kuala Lumpur is a busy place, packed with office blocks, international banks, shopping malls and too many cars and trucks to count. Set against this backdrop of pollution and noise, it is a surprise that any wildlife can survive. But while walking to the Central Market, I caught sight of a couple of birds flying across the road.