Small joys: dunnocks

I once went to help make beer at a small brewery, in the countryside, on the Devon-Dorset border. When we took a break we stepped outside and I pointed out a dunnock feeding on the ground. The brewer’s reaction was wonderful. She’d seen this little bird before, and she’d heard of a dunnock, but she didn’t know they were one and the same. She seemed to receive this new knowledge like a gift – which in turn rewarded me for sharing what I’d learned.

Dunnocks are small songbirds, with the habit of feeding on the ground. Some still call them hedge sparrows but they aren’t a relative of the sparrows we know. If you look closely you’ll see the dunnock’s beak is a different shape to that of the sparrow. Beak shape is related to diet and enables birds to eat particular things. The dunnock’s beak is dark grey, thin and pointed; rather like a pencil lead. As with many birds now, it must take what food it can find, but it favours insects. The sparrow’s beak is conical and chunky by comparison and better shaped for eating seeds.

Dunnocks have a simple, scratchy, but tuneful, song and are a common visitor to my garden and surrounding neighbourhood. They are small brown birds with blue-grey faces and breasts – of a shade that always puts me in mind of Wedgewood pottery*. This spring they seemed to have nested in the bay tree (actually more bush than tree) in our back garden. Early signs were seeing two adults feeding together happily, suggesting they might be a pair. Then there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing from the bay, often followed by a reedy cheeping sound. Next, my husband spotted three dunnocks in the garden all at once. “Were they all adults?” I asked – and then realised I didn’t actually know what a juvenile dunnock looked like. (They are very similar, but young are more streaky and lack the blue-grey face and breast). Since then another fledgling has emerged and it’s a joy watching these dunnock siblings explore their new world.


*If you follow the link to find out about Wedgewood pottery, scroll down the page to the section on ‘Jasperware’ – as that’s what I’m thinking of.

Pic credit: Dunnock by Tony Sutton is licensed via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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