Shy Dunnock still one of our most common birds

Jim Hurley - Nature trail

Published 14/04/2015 | 00:00

The Dunnock is strongly territorial and is a loner.
The Dunnock is strongly territorial and is a loner.

While the Dunnock is a very common and widespread bird found in every county in Ireland it is one of our least well-known species. Often passed off as a dull-looking House Sparrow, on closer inspection it is a very different creature.

The 'dun' part of its name refer to its colour. The colour dun is a dull, drab, greyish-brown and while the Dunnock is generally dun-coloured it also has very distinct feather tracts that are pure grey and pure brown. Its superficial resemblance to the House Sparrow and its affinity for staying close to hedgerows has earned the bird its alternative name Hedge Sparrow.

Sparrows form a distinct family of sturdily-built birds with short conical bills for eating seeds. The Dunnock with its slimmer, sleeker body and thinner, pointed bill for eating insects is unrelated to sparrows and belongs to a small family of birds called accentors. The Dunnock is the only accentor found in Ireland; the other four are all mountain birds found elsewhere in uplands in mainland Europe and Asia.

According to BirdWatch Ireland surveys, the Dunnock is one of Ireland's top-20 most widespread garden birds and while many books state that it uses bird tables I have never seen it on any of the bird tables that we have gone through over several years.

True, it will now and again forage under the table but I have never seen it actually land on the table. There are several reasons for this: the Dunnock is primarily an insect feeder, it is strongly territorial, it is a loner and it is extremely shy.

Usually seen on its own, it always appears nervous and agitated as it constantly flicks its wings and/or tail and anxiously skulking about on the ground keeping close to cover. Searching among the leaf litter, Dunnocks find beetles, ants, spiders and other creepy crawlies to feed on. In autumn they also take seeds and berries.

The sexes are very alike and both are promiscuous with both males and females having several different partners. Other adults have been observed feeding young birds. The Cuckoo exploits this behaviour and lays her large egg among the Dunnock's clutch of small, pure blue, unspotted eggs.

The parasitizing Cuckoo chick throws its host's eggs out of the nest to get all the parental attention. Instances have been recorded of a young Cuckoo being fed not only by the Dunnocks who own the nest but by several other Dunnocks, mainly males.

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