May has been a good month for birds in the garden and I have seen all of the usual visitors at some time or another as well as the Bullfinch for the first time.
One bird that I am seeing more and more of is the Dunnock, which is a small bird that doesn’t draw a lot of attention to itself and is commonly mistaken for the sparrow. After a period of decline its numbers are increasing again in the UK and the bird is now on the RSPB amber status list.
It is sometimes called the Hedge Accentor, Hedge Sparrow or Hedge Warbler and you will probably guess from this that it spends a lot of time in hedges and small bushes looking for food. The Dunnock doesn’t visit the bird table or the feeders, but prefer to pick up food from the ground which has been dropped by other birds. They seem to be able to go about their business relatively undisturbed because except for competing with the Robin for the same sort of food they don’t seem to be inconveniencing anyone else. It may be for this reason that many people mistake the Dunnock for a female Robin, which it isn’t!
At first sight I suppose you might say that the Dunnock is relatively dull but if they sit still long enough you can see that, as with most birds, this is not the case at all. Although it is never going to compete with the gaily coloured finches and the tits it really does have quite striking colours especially around its head and collar where the feathers are a very attractive grey-blue and it has white freckle like specks around its inquisitive little eyes. Despite the first impression the Dunnock is a handsome little bird and he is a welcome visitor to my garden.
I was interested this weekend to see two birds squabbling in the garden with lots of chasing each other about, wing flapping and tail flicking in a competitive sort of way and I have found out why.
An interesting fact about the Dunnock is that this is the swinger of all birds, quite fond of a bit of wife swapping. Females are polyandrous, breeding with two or more males at once and DNA testing has shown that chicks within broods often have different fathers. The males too don’t putting it about either and this makes the Dunnock quite rare as this sort of behaviour is only found in about 2% of birds because the majority are monogamous, where one male and one female breed and stay together. There are more than two million breeding Dunnocks in the UK so that sounds like an awful lot of fun.
Not being absolutely sure who the father of the chicks might be may also account for the fact that It is a common host of the cuckoo and whilst the eggs bear no resemblance to each other the cuckoo eggs are commonly accepted. I have read that this may be a recent thing because other birds have got better at spotting the cuckoo’s egg but I don’t think it can be so because Shakespeare refers to it in King Lear when the Fool (who is not nearly as daft as he looks) provides an interesting assessment of the betrayal of the King by his daughter Goneril with these lines:
“The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long
That had it’s head bit off by it’s young.” [I, 4]
Other posts about birds: