The Dunnock (Prunella modularis) is a common bird at St Nicks. It’s also known as “Hedge Sparrow”, “Hedge Warbler” and “Hedge Accentor”. The latter is the most accurate of names, because the Dunnock is neither a “sparrow” or a “warbler”, but is a member of the Accentor family of birds. But most people call them “Dunnocks”!
“Dunnock” comes from the Ancient British word, “dunnakos”, meaning “little brown one”. This is a pretty accurate description because, superficially, the Dunnock looks like an archetypal “little brown job” (as birdwatchers call little nondescript birds)!
Although superficially resembling a House Sparrow, Dunnocks can be separated from Sparrows by (1) a thin beak, compared with a Sparrow’s chunky beak (2) a grey chest, compared with a Sparrow’s paler chest – and no black bib which the male Sparrow has, and (3) orange / reddish legs.
The song is also totally different from that of a Sparrow. No little cheeps, but a melodious, trilling warble. You can hear a Dunnock’s song by clicking here (turn up your speakers!). It’s a little like a Wren’s song but, as one field guide describes it, “lacking the Wren’s note of aggression”!
Dunnocks are furtive, creeping birds, often foraging on the ground like a little mouse. They are more likely to be found under bird tables, gathering spilt seed rather than on the feeders themselves.
But this shy, skulking behaviour hides a lascivious nature! Male and female Dunnocks pair up and mate in the Spring. But they are not faithful to each other. The male will creep off and try to mate with another female, often pecking at her rear end before mating to remove traces of any other male. The female is no better; she will also go in search of other males and seek to mate with them! So, often at St Nicks, you might find, in the mating season, three Dunnocks chasing round after each other!
The eggs are normally laid in April in a cup-shaped nest built by both the male and female in a bush, hedge or pile of wood less than six feet off the ground. Both parents feed the young (four to six eggs are laid), and the young leave the nest after about 12 days – although they are not very good at flying by then. Juvenile birds are quite spotted, and resemble young Robins.
So keep a look (and ear) out for these shy denizens of St Nicks. Once you’ve learnt to identify them, you’ll see and hear them everywhere on the Reserve!
All photos on this page were taken at St Nicks.