Monday, 23 January 2012

Dunnock – usual suspect #1

If a little brown bird is jerkily running along the ground, stopping at cracks in paving and disappearing down the earthy edges around your lawn before scuttling off under plants and out of sight then you could be looking at a Dunnock. This bird is one of my garden favs.




Watching the Dunnock you could easily see why for many years it was known as the hedge sparrow. However, the Dunnock is not related to the sparrow at all. The species name for the Dunnock is Prunella modularis. It comes from the family Prunellidae and the order Passiformes.

Wait a minute … don’t be put off thinking this is going to be a full-on bird profile. Considering how many websites have information on this 'not so dull’ little brown bird I have decided to add links at the end of this post to explain via videos and other reading.

Considering this post as a help to ID the Dunnock for people here in the UK (new to birds) and those taking part in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch (this weekend) for the first time I thought some visual clues would be best. I know this would have helped me. Hopefully this format will work for visitors outside the UK too.

So… does a Dunnock visit your garden?. Here are some visual clues…




Looking at the colour of legs any bird has is a great clue to what it is and the shape of the beak tells you what kind of food it usually eats. In the case of the Dunnock, it needs a thin sharp beak to search for insects in hidden places.

Lol... the live mini mealworms (in what was thought to be a hidden spot) for a single Mum Blue tit using our nestbox a few years ago didn't last long when the Dunnock parents found them!

However, when it comes to winter months when every morsel of food foraged for goes to getting enough energy to survive a very cold night you will find birds eating a bigger variety of foods. You may also see the Dunnock take seeds from bird tables. In my garden they will visit bird tables throughout the year.

Videos are a great way to help ID a visiting garden bird. I have found them very helpful myself when I see a new visitor to my garden.

The Dunnock doesn’t often perch out in open for long except on high tree branches when singing. Although a very short video capture I was thrilled with the first video below.


Very short, close-up capture of Dunnock taken in garden, October 2011


Equally special was the video capture of a Dunnock juvenile being fed by a possible parent (see further reading) back in 2010. I had never seen this before.

The capture below was taken with a previous video camera so the quality is not as sharp but it is still okay quality and a nice one to see. It also shows the birds feeding along edges and jerkily hopping for cover.


Dunnock parent and juvenile being fed taken in garden, August 2010


In my garden, Dunnock juveniles are the first juveniles to be seen in my garden each year. With the video above being taken in August I could take a reasonably accurate guess that they have 3 broods a year here.

However things don't always go to plan for this little bird which measures just 14cm (5½in)in length. The Dunnock is also one of the host species for the Cuckoo (32-33cm/12-13in in length).

Back in December 2011 I posted a brilliant photo of a Dunnock parent standing on the back of the fledged Cuckoo. There is also a video showing how the newly hatched Cuckoo chick removes the host bird's eggs and chicks (this time the host is a Reed Warbler). Although fascinating the video is hard to watch too.

In summary when it comes to the breeding season this is not a dull little bird species at all. Females (after mated) often court other males to ensure an adequate supply of food for their chicks. More details can be found in the video links below together with lots more info and images - enjoy!


Video from BBC NATURE WILDLIFE Life of Birds: Dunnock females give up on monogamy to enlist more male support. View Devoted Dunnocks?

Video from BBC NATURE WILDLIFE Birds Britannia: Drab and sobre-looking, the dunnock indulges in just about every sexual strategy there is. View Scandalous birds.

RSPB Dunnock Profile including song and video.

BTO BirdFacts for Dunnock includes lots of stats, images, video and sound.


This post was written by Shirley for shirls gardenwatch in January 2012.

Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

10 comments:

Crystal said...

Lovely pictures and videos. We have at least one pair of dunnocks in our garden, possibly two. I don't know why, but I prefer the old name 'hedge sparrow.' I know they are not technically sparrows, but I just think it sounds nicer than dunnock.

Lisa at Greenbow said...

A wonderful post for those wondering what that LBJ is skittering through the garden. I would love to be able to come to your part of the world to bird. Maybe some day I can.

Rohrerbot said...

Lots of great useful info. Thanks!

ShySongbird said...

Hi Shirl, lovely to be back at last :-) A most enjoyable post here with lovely photos and video.

I think Dunnocks are lovely little birds and have always felt sorry that such a delicate looking little bird is one of the main targets/victims of the Cuckoo, not that it is very delicate in the morals department of course ;-) I think scuttling is a spot on description of their behaviour, that is exactly how I always think of them.

I do hope your husband is much better now and that 2012 will be happy and healthy for all of you.

Bridget said...

No Dunnocks...lots of Tits, Chaffinches and a few Goldfinches.

shirl said...

Hi everyone, thanks for all your comments :-)

Crystal, delighted you enjoyed the images. Hedge Sparrow does suit it although I do like the name Dunnock too. Pre blog I had never heard of this bird at all :-)

Lisa, thanks, I do hope it helps others interested in what’s visiting gardens. I wonder just how different you would find birding here. I can imagine it would be fun seeing so many new birds and others like the starlings and house sparows that we have in common in a different climate. Hopefully one day you will :-D

Rohrerbot, I hope so, it’s nice to share :-)

Jan, so very nice to see you in blogland once again. You have been missed :-) I too see the Dunnocks as delicate birds however until quite recently I never knew about the Cuckoo. Thanks, for your good wishes. My husband is now on a phased return to work where he is trying to increase his work hours a bit at a time. He is getting there :-)

Bridget, shame… got your crew here too. It’s a busy place at times :-)

Sue@G.L. Allotments said...

I love dunnocks too - when I explain them to people who just think they are sparrows I usually say look at the legs too!

Shaheen said...

Charming little creatures. I've had one dotting about in my garden in West of Scotland recently.

Anna said...

Just been looking at a dunnock from the living room window - fascinating to watch. Off now to fill up feeders in preparation for the RSPBB Bird Count. They will be breakfasting in style :)

shirl said...

Hello again, everyone :-)

Sue, yes the legs are a great tip for ID. I really hadn’t noticed their colour before making the montage. I’ll remember that now. It’s always the grey collar that has helped me :-)

Shaheen, charming is a perfect word to describe the Dunnock. Nice to hear you see them too :-)

Anna, I trust your Birdwatch Diners enjoyed breakfast chez greentapestry! I’m sure you did them proud. Hope you enjoyed doing your count and caught a glimpse of the Dunnock again during your hour :-)