A tale of sex and intrigue . . .

Dunnock at nest Derek Belsey, Cliff Reddick/BTO
Dunnock at nest Derek Belsey, Cliff Reddick/BTO
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Although literally a ‘little brown bird’,

there is nothing boring about the dunnock, according to Graham Appleton, from the BTO in Thetford

You’ll be surprised to learn some of the things that are going on in suburban shrubbery!

Professor Nick Davies, of Cambridge University, who has been studying dunnocks for years, has discovered that these birds have really complicated sex-lives.

He has written about their activities in a book, Dunnock Behaviour and Social Evolution, thereby conferring international notoriety on this unassuming garden bird.

The head of the Japanese ringing scheme came to visit the BTO some years ago and I remember that he was really excited to see a boring, brown dunnock!

If you watch the birds in your garden you’ll probably see dunnocks hopping around under the feeder and picking up tiny food items. They are dull birds, in terms of colour, although I quite like the smart grey head and ruby red eye of the adults at this time of year.

Dunnocks used to be known as hedge sparrows; the coloration is similar but they don’t have the heavy seed-crunching bills of their chunkier cousins and they don’t go around in flocks.

Male dunnocks need to keep an eye on their females so you are quite likely to see two birds at the same time, perhaps flicking their wings at each other.

Dunnocks are territorial all year round but, unusually, it is the female who determines the extent of the patch in which to rear the youngsters come the spring, by defending it against other females at the start of the season.

Each female is likely to be attended by two males, an alpha male who aims to keep in close attendance, and a beta male who tries to sneak in when the alpha is not looking. If this secondary male secures a successful mating with the female he is likely to then help to raise the brood of youngsters, alongside the female and the top male, conferring extra advantage for the growing chicks.

A dunnock’s nest contains four or five blue eggs and a female will lay two or sometimes three clutches in a year. There is therefore plenty of activity all summer long, as male dunnocks vie for the attention of females, parent birds go about their feeding duties and youngsters start to fend for themselves.

If you have not paid much attention to your ‘hedge sparrows’ keep an eye out for movement under the bushes or mouse-like scuttling beneath the feeders. Pick up the binoculars and give a little respect to a fascinating species.

If you want to know more about the birds that share their gardens with you then why not join the BTO’s Garden BirdWatch? Please phone 01842 750050 and ask for a copy of the latest issue of Bird Table, the quarterly magazine, to find out more.