Underrated birds: 188 Dunnock

‘unobtrusive, quiet and retiring, without being shy, humble and homely in its deportment and habits, sober and unpretending in its dress, while still neat and graceful, the Dunnock exhibits a pattern which many of a high grade might imitate with advantage to themselves and benefit to others through an improved example’. So Reverand F. O. Morris in 1856 encouraged his parishioners.

Then in 1987 along came Nick Davies and in 20 pages in British Birds (Studies of West Palearctic Birds: 188. Dunnock.  80 p604-624) opened up the Dunnocks (very) private life to a mass audience like some gutter tabloid -monogamy; polygyny; polyandry; polygynandry; cloaca-pecking; oh and parasitism by Cuckoos (remember them?).

However to most birders ‘ it’s the sort of inconspicuous bird you forget about . . . but I find it a tantalising bird showing sudden flashes of life and then disappearing into thick hedgerows or bushes (Campbell, 1952).  And worse still for many birders especially in the Autumn its name is usually proceeded by ‘IOA-its only a’.

To me though it’s always been a bit special. I still remember the first clutch of bright blue eggs I was shown. I am also fascinated by what they eat even when you watch them with a scope you do wonder at what dusty speck it has just managed to pick up and feed on.  But equally important is the song.  Whilst there are many birds whose song is the harbinger of Spring, for me it is the Dunnock sitting in the sunshine with a blue February Sky behind it.

So why blog about them now and not then. Well now they remind me about Global travels.  In 1987 I was lucky to go to Palawan one of the Philippine Islands to search for their endemic Peacock Pheasant. Three of us did transact surveys through secondary and primary Rainforest over a 9 week period. It was a very different world in the dim light of the forest floor settling down only after ensuring you were not sitting in a Fire Ant nest.  One bird we all waited for was a Falcated Ground Babbler which after days of not seeing one would just pop up, unobtrusively right beside you.  And that for me is how I see Dunnocks at this time of year.  You are out clearing a bit of garden and right under your feet appears one, two or even three Dunnocks.

And it was this variable mating system that Nick Davies reported on in his article. The photo in the Nick Davies link gives you some idea what you may be letting yourself in for if you find the original.  This was followed up with other articles on territoriality and song use as flexible paternity guards.  And papers on the use of female vocalisation as they compete for males.

The bird itself does not really need a photo to let you know what I have seen, but as I continue to play digits oping novice I was pleased with these two in a series as two birds chased at Seaham.

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Then I looked at the blog (EasternBushChat) of a friend of mine who is turning into a good bird photographer and realised I will only get record shots.  Thanks Barry for the use of you pic.


The second time of year they introduce themselves is when the young fledge.  Our neighbourhood have first and second broods heavily predates but generally in July there are a couple of fledglings bouncing around.  Their constant tiny tinkle-bell type sound adds a magic when there are so few bird sounds in the garden.

I don’t know what the previous 187 West Palearctic birds were or whether British Birds actually continued with the series but number 188 does get a thumbs up smiley from me even when you are waiting for a Radde’s to reappear.


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