Monday, 2 February 2015

The Humble Dunnock

The feeding station is absolutely buzzing with activity, the yellow-ish blurs of blue and great tits spiralling through the air. A pair of robins keep watch from the ground, while a male blackbird chases the paler female with a stream of chuckling calls and above, in the leafless trees, a great squirrel sits preening his tail. With all of this going on in your garden, you could be forgiven for overlooking a species that blends in with the piles of crisp, fallen leaves that it spends its time turning over.

The dunnock is possibly the most undervalued species of garden bird, in my opinion. Its appearance certainly doesn't help, seeming from a distance to be a drab, brown bird, like a duller sparrow, but upon closer inspection, this is far from the case. I actually think that the dunnock shares more characteristics with a robin than a sparrow and its markings set it aside as a very pretty bird. The cap and chest is a delicate silvery-grey colour that contrasts with the warm, brown of the rest of the body which is streaked and speckled with dark markings. Crucially, the bill is thin and pointed, much like the robin's but completely different to the short wedge of the sparrow's bill, and is designed to pick out small insects and seeds, so it will nearly always be found on the ground, hopping about with movements similar to its fellow ground-feeders, and flicking its head from side to side searching for minuscule morsels.

Yesterday, one of our local dunnocks spent a while perched in a deciduous tree belting out its pretty song. Although it doesn't quite match up to the syrupy sweetness of the robin's Spring song, it is certainly very close. I took it to be a male getting a headstart at attracting a female mate with his vocal talents. We had a pair of dunnocks nesting in the front garden last year so perhaps this year will see the same pair return, although these birds are not known for their monogamy. They lead very complicated patterns of mating, with females often having more than one male partner (polyandryous) and the male having more than female (polygynous), but that's not to say monogamy is completely out of the question; these birds just like to keep their options open. Smart when your main goal in life is to breed as many times as possible.

I find it pleasant viewing to watch a dunnock in our garden, originally dubbed a "hedge sparrow" by the Romans. It is quiet and unassuming, content to pick through leafy debris, until the bolshier robin chases it away, although it won't go far before creeping back through the undergrowth. It's the kind of bird that, during feeding, is no bother to anyone and is happy keeping to itself. The male leads two lives though for, come breeding season, he will be defending his territory and likely have to fight off several other males to gain the attentions of the female. He will even peck at the female's cloaca before mating, in order to eject any sperm from the previous male and thereby increasing his chances of success.
It occurred to me to devote a little writing time to the dunnock while I was watching him yesterday, singing away. A species frequently brushed aside and ignored by garden birdwatchers, there is so much more to this little bird than is immediately obvious. So, the next time you look out at your garden, I suggest you train your gaze on the ground and watch out for this small, grey loner, keeping himself to himself; he has quite a social life!

Image credits:

1 comment:

  1. The birds in our garden are also active and happy, they must sense that spring is coming.
    I love the photos of the birds - how did you get them to sit still for you?