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Garden wildlife watch: the dunnock

David Chapman / 13 February 2012

The vast majority of gardens around the country have a resident pair of dunnocks but because they are not very colourful or as well known as many other garden birds, they are easily overlooked

Dunnock photographed by David Chapman

The dunnock is sometimes referred to as a hedge sparrow and, although it is a bird which lives mostly around the base of shrubs and hedges, it most definitely is not a sparrow. 

It was probably first referred to as a sparrow because it is small and brown, but we can tell that it isn’t a sparrow simply by looking at its beak.  Sparrows are seed eaters and have stout beaks capable of dealing with large seeds whereas the dunnock has a fine beak used to eat insects, grubs and some, usually smaller, seeds. 

In fact the dunnock is a member of the family of birds known as ‘accentors’ of which we don’t have any other representatives in Britain.  Recently the dunnock has become known, more accurately, as the ‘hedge accentor’.

It is true to say that the dunnock’s plumage looks a little plain from a distance but look closely and the intricate detail around the bird’s grey head becomes quite attractive.  It is quite a shy bird, often seen skulking on the ground close to shrubs but the males will be establishing their territories during February. On bright sunny days he perches higher up in a shrub or tree to sing his heart out, this song is not as clear and beautiful as the robin but it has a distinctive quality which can sometimes be described as enthusiastic but a little repetitive and hardly ever tuneful.

This seemingly insignificant bird does have one aspect to its behaviour which makes it unique amongst garden birds.  When breeding begins, over the next few weeks, male dunnocks will sometimes be seen pecking at the rear end of females.  This strange habit, known as cloaca-pecking, is a precursor to mating and the aim of the male is to remove any sperm of its competitors before introducing some of his own.


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