In my distant youth, the dunnock was a hedge sparrow, a rare and exotic visitor to a garden in which the (totally boring) house sparrow predominated. Sixty years on, I get moderately excited at the arrival of house sparrows, whereas a day rarely passes without the dunnocks moving purposefully along the fences – they were not even put off by the recent major upheaval in the garden.
The dunnock looks nothing like a sparrow (except perhaps that both can be classed as ‘little brown jobs’) but its preference for hedges and other sheltered spots is indicated in some of its dialect names: ‘hay-sag’, ‘haysuck’ and ‘heisugge’. Others are less obvious in their origin: ‘dikesmowler’, ‘blue-isaac’ or ‘doney’?
A few weeks ago, I posted one of these as my #WordoftheDay on Twitter (@Prof_hedgehog), and was interested to be told of another name, ‘hedge-accentor’. This took me back to the Linnaean nomenclature of 1758: he called the house sparrow Fringilla domestica, but Fringilla was quite soon afterwards restricted to the chaffinches and bramblings, so the house sparrow became Passer domesticus, among the Passeridae among the Passeriformes, as proposed by the French zoologist Mathurin Jacques Brisson (1723–1806). In the same way, the much rarer tree sparrow was originally Fringilla montana L., but became Passer montanus, though it is not a mountain bird and is known as Feldsperling, ‘field-sparrow’, in German.
The dunnock, though also among the Passeriformes, was named Motacilla modularis by Linnaeus, in the genus of wagtails. However, in 1816 another French naturalist, Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot (1748–1830) renamed it Prunella modularis (modularis meaning ‘singing together’), and Prunella apparently from German name for dunnock, Braunelle, which means ‘little brown bird’. ‘Dunnock’ in Old English means ‘small and brown’, which brings us full circle.
Finally, the ‘accentor’ name. Latin accentor means ‘one who sings together’, and there appear to be thirteen species with this relatively colloquial name across Eurasia, all of them Prunellae, and most of them also looking like little brown jobs. Two exceptions are the robin accentor (Prunella rubeculoides) of the mountains of central Asia and China, and the maroon-backed accentor (Prunella immaculata) (ditto), which John Gould painted in The Birds of Asia, vol. 4 ( though he called it ‘blue-shouldered’ rather than ‘maroon-backed’).
The biggest difference between the dunnock and any sparrow is in the beak – the former’s is finely pointed, to deal with (small) worms, insects and small seeds, the latter’s much chunkier, almost finch-like, to deal with the oats and wheat seeds which form the bulk of its diet – though of course the house sparrow is the ultimate opportunist, and will eat almost anything, including the remains of your breakfast in a hotel garden, given half a chance.
In my own patch, the dunnock is – so far – the only bird who hasn’t attempted to master the hanging feeders: it seems to do quite well out of the bits that are dropped by the others. Clearly, the instinct to stay low is a very strong one, in spite of the danger of predators (mostly cats, in my urban setting).
The sex life of the dunnock is notorious. The males are very territorial, and will challenge others on their ‘patch’, but although they pair off, the female will mate with other males as well as her main partner – and these males will obligingly bring food for the chicks, each presumably assuming that they have offspring to care for. If there is a territorial group, there is a hierarchy of alpha and beta males, though I only ever see a pair (or more than one pair, who knows?) in my own garden.
Dunnocks make their delicate nests, lined with moss or sheeps’ wool in hedges (surprise!) or in woodland underbrush. Four or five blue eggs are normally laid, but the dunnock’s nest is one of the favourites for a cuckoo to ‘colonise’, so the possible assistance of extra males in feeding becomes crucial, in order to keep the intruding monster (which on hatching pushing the remaining eggs and fledglings overboard) fed.
Happily, in spite of the destruction over the last seventy years of so many hedgerows (and the interventions of cuckoos), the dunnock is considered as being ‘of least concern’ by the IUCN. The one time at which it does get high above the ground is when singing – remember the ‘accentor’ and ‘modularis’ names?
‘Singing together’ is perhaps too cosy – the object seems to be territorial (plus threat?) – but the sound is very distinctive, and the one most frequently heard round here, apart from the robin. The Wikipedia entry has a recording of the song, and it’s possible to hear clearly a second bird in the background, replying – but is this a convivial conversation or a challenge accepted?
In my humble opinion, Bewick’s image of the dunnock (which he calls the ‘winter fauvette’, ‘fauvette’ being the French word for a warbler) is one of his less successful engravings, because it fails to catch the subtlety of the blend between the brown and blue-grey feathers around the head. In fact, the dunnock is not well served by artists: this lithograph after Gould is also too crudely demarcated around the head.
But, luckily, though I may need to rely on Gould for the blue-shouldered accentor, for the hedge accentor I just need to look outside the window.