Dunnock Roaming

15th March 2008

Dunnocks are one of our most widespread yet least regarded garden birds. Despite a seemingly humdrum appearances however, there is more to them than meets the eye… Jack Watkins reveals their secrets.

Spring is in the air, the harbingers of change are all around. It is there in the lengthening of the evenings, and in the thickening of the buds on bushes and trees. Most noticeably of all, it is there in the upping of activity amongst the bird population. Outside my window, at 4.00 in the morning, my sleep is disturbed by a robin, his fluty song becoming ever more full-bodied and ardent. On an embankment above the railway bridge, a few hours later, the sound of a song thrush rings out brightly in the cool, crisp air. In the hedges, great tits flit in and out, their ‘teacher, teacher’ utterances like the sound of child’s rusty swing creaking back into action after long winter disuse.

Amidst the flurry of activity, however, there’s one little fellow I’ll wager that few but the most enthusiastic observers care much to notice, despite its being an ever-present inhabitant of our gardens – the mild-mannered dunnock. I can hear one now, the song a dulcet, fast-paced whistle… rather like, I fancifully think, a transistor radio being rapidly tuned in by someone in a hurry to catch the football results. But ‘dunnock’ is not a name to spring readily to the lips of people who proudly recount the birds they have visiting their gardens. Sparrow-like in size and looks, to the casual observer, that’s probably all it is, if it catches their eye at all.

They could not be more wrong. Just as fine clothing may conceal an empty mind, and drab attire a richly imaginative one, so the dunnock’s unremarkable looks conceal a rather fascinating lifestyle. Once you’re able to identify one and its habits, you’ll certainly appreciate that it is very different to the sparrow. It’s not just in its appearance – the dunnock is less chunky, a deeper brown, with a subtle slate gray colouration of head and underparts – but in behaviour. The ‘sparrer’ is a noisy character, a regular visitor to the bird table, or seen hanging out with a bunch of mates on the fence. The dunnock, more solitary in its feeding habits, prefers a much lower profile. It likes to nest in gorse bushes or thick hedges – its old country vernacular name is the ‘hedge sparrow’ – and if you’ve one of the latter in your garden, there’s a good chance you have dunnocks too. From the hedges they quietly emerge to inspect the lawn or to hop onto the flower bed, which they will closely scrutinise, with their bodies characteristically held low to the ground, for insects or seeds.

So meek is the dunnock that, while you might catch one making the odd fleeting visit to the bird table, they tend to get bullied by other birds, and so mostly stick to their natural ground-level food hunting habitats. Here, of course, they are vulnerable to cats, so if you do put out crumbs, seeds or grated cheese for them, make sure it’s placed under the cover of a hedge or bush.

One of the most delightful things about the dunnock is the remarkable ‘wing waving’ courtship display. In the breeding season, from late winter to early spring, the male will often alight on top of a hedge close to a choice-looking female, and start flicking his wings in alternation, over several minutes. Suddenly, he can find himself joined by several more like-minded males, who each proceed to indulge in the same activity.

Most distinctive of all are the curious ‘domestic’ arrangements of nesting birds. Males often associate with several females at the same time, but the most common occurrence is for the female to engage herself with two males. One of these is the dominant partner, yet this won’t stop the female frequently sneaking off for liaisons with the other. Ornithologists say that each of the individuals has sound motives for remaining within this seemingly unstable set-up: the males by maximising their reproductive opportunities, and the female by getting both of her partners to stay on and help with feeding and rearing the chicks, when in most other breeds the males would simply fly off. Meanwhile, the two males, despite their rivalry, will band together to defend the territory against any other Johnny-come-latelys fancying a piece of the action.

Dunnocks are extremely sedentary birds, living within a small area for their entire lives, so the ones in your hedge will be real locals, steeped in the traditions. They are one of the birds that adapted well to the surburbanisation of southern England in the late 19th and 20th century, and are one of our most abundant birds. Despite this, their numbers had fallen by around 50% by the 1980s, and they are now, like other ‘common’ birds such as the house sparrow, the starling and the song thrush, a species of conservation concern. No-one is quite sure why, although the modern mania for replacing lawns with parking spaces or decking or patios, the ripping out of hedgerows and low ground cover, and the ubiquity of low maintenance fencing, are as likely culprits as any.

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