fantail nest

“To the quiet observer of the habits of our bird-friends, but few sights can afford more gratification than watching the patient industry which is displayed by the very energetic and useful flycatcher in the construction of its compactly formed nest. The nest is to be found near its food supply (for the young will make incessant demands on the exertions of the parent birds), and it seeks a sheltered position where insects 'most do congregate;' it must at the same time afford 'ample room and verge enough' for the numberless evolutions to be performed by the rapid fluttering of two pairs of most active wings, which are soon to be fanning the lazy air. To meet these indispensable requirements, the security offered by the densely tangled thicket is most commonly neglected for the retirement that is to be found beneath the high bank of some shady creek; the bough usually selected stands out well from the main stem, not too close to other branches. The foundation of the nest is laid by adroitly securing the slender chips of decayed wood with lines of cobweb to the spray selected; this delicate operation must of necessity be a work of great difficulty, "c'est le premier pas qui coute;" in places where splinters of decayed wood were not to be obtained, we have noticed that the glumes of coarse grass have been used instead. We could fail to admire the persevering efforts of these little architects; what dexterity and cleverness have been employed in raising the frail platform on which is to be built the thick felted wall of the snug home. At the next stage, additional exertions are called forth; from the variety of materials required, longer flights become necessary for their collection, mossy stones and roots are scrutinised, and places frequented by live stock visited; fine grasses, thread-like roots, dead leaves or skeletons of leaves, hair, green tufts of moss with tiny imbricated leaves, and the down of tree ferns, are now wanted, crevices are now searched, and the numerous holes before which "the murderous spider," lurking in the dark, has spread the treacherous net.

“It is whilst collecting cobwebs that the plumage of the Flycatcher is exhibited to the greatest advantage; hovering on the wing, the fan-like tail outspread to the utmost width, with rapid gyrations they move round the spot till enough has been secured for the load; the quality made use of would surprise those who have not witnessed these labours; it is the most important element in felting; in fact, it is the mortar of the future structure. Whilst building, the exterior of the wall is always kept higher than the centre of the nest, so that at an early stage of its progress it looks saucer-like in shape; the birds (for both join in the labour, although the female appears to undertake the greatest share) try the strength of their work in every way; it is well trampled, the webs are carried from the interior to the outside in festoons from left to right, and right to left, as far down as the beak can reach; this working in of the web is persevered with throughout the entire building of the fabric, thus the materials are repeatedly braced together. As the wall rises, the bird, with tail elevated, is itself the mould by which the rounded cavity is beautifully shaped; seated in the centre of the rising structure, it turns round repeatedly, fluttering the wings, which action keeps the wall pressed out to its proper shape, the head and chin is pressed on the top, the materials pulled in towards the centre; this manoeuvre is performed at frequent intervals. So earnest are these little workers that they scarcely rest for hours; sometimes, by a sudden flutter, they obtain a few insects, or the creek is visited for water; the cock now and then finds time for a brief twitter, moving his head from side to side, as if criticising or admiring the result of their united exertions, but quickly both are at work again.

“Towards the completion of the home, as it assumes a cup-like form, a still more abundant use of cobweb may be noticed, the festoons are multiplied, the wall being finished of with numberless ties and braces; the interior is now lined with fern-down, the slender fruit stalks of moss, or other soft material other than feathers, and the structure is complete, and admirably finished; it is warm, strong, and elastic, and so well felted that it is not easily pressed out of shape; it is a marvel of construction, effected by the beaks of two small birds.”

Guthrie Smith observed that fantails breed at least during six months of the year, the earliest nest in August and the latest in February.

"The birds sit so close that not infrequently they can be stroked on their nests, and when on one occasion the sitting bird had to be moved, she suffered herself to be lifted off, clutching her tiny claws into the nest and holding on like a broody hen".

The eggs, four in number, generally are white with brown speckles towards the larger end, in size 16 x 12 cm. Both birds incubate the eggs for 13-16 days. The young are fed on a variety of small insects.

There are 10 subspecies, three of which are found in New Zealand. The South Island subspecies has a black phase as well as a pied phase, making up to 20 per cent of the population. There are a few black phase fantails found around the southern North Island.

— Greytown, 2007.

fantail nest
Sub Species:
placabilis, fuliginosa, penitus.

Song:  — 

 Viking Sevenseas

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Other common names:  — 

Pied fantail, tiwakwaka, grey fantail.

Description:  — 

Native bird

16 cm., including long fanned tail, 8g., pied bird hs grey head, white eyebrow, brown back, yellow underparts, black and white tail., juvenile similar but browner body; black phase, sooty black but for white spot behind the eye.

Where to find:  — 

Widespread, from bush to gardens.

Credit for the photograph: — 


Derek Melser

Illustration description: — 


Guthrie Smith, H., Birds of Water, Woods and Waste, 1927.

Potts, T.H., Transactions of the NZ Institute, Volume 3, 1870.

Reference(s): — 


Potts, T.H., Transactions of the NZ Institute, Volume 3, 1870.

Guthrie Smith, H., Birds of Water, Woods and Waste, 1927.

Page date & version: — 


Monday, 19 May 2014; ver2009v1

fantail nest

©  2007    Narena Olliver,    new zealand birds limited,     Greytown, New Zealand.