The Dunnock 

Image courtesy of smalljim CC BY-SA 3.0 license.


The Dunnock, Prunella modularis,also referred to as the Hedge sparrow belongs to the order of birds known as the Passeriformes {perching birds} and the family Prunellidae. The common name of Dunnock derives from the old English dunnakos indicating a little brown one. The genus name of Prunella is a diminutive of the Latin prunus meaning brown.The specific name of modularis indicates to sing.

In the UK the bird is listed on the Amber list of conservation concern { declines of between 25-50% over the last forty years or so} due to recent population declines. In Ireland it is Green listed -{ no concerns} and is regarded as one of the most widespread [top 20} garden birds. The estimated UK population is 2.3 million territories in the summer months. Source BTO.

In Europe it is not a bird of conservation concern. Populations vary from country to country to illustrate this are the following examples. Austria 200,000-400,000 breeding pairs, Belgium 250-500 breeding pairs. Croatia 5,000-10,000 breeding pairs.France 1.5 -7 million breeding pairs . Germany 1.3-2 million breeding pairs. Spain 44,000 to 1 million breeding pairs . Ukraine 24,500 -34,500 breeding pairs. Source Birdlife.

 The Gaelic name for the bird Gealbhonn-garaidh. Welsh Llwydy y Gwryoh and the Irish name is Donnog.

Here we look at the species its habits and lifestyle along with historical observations from past ornithologist and other eminent writers. As always we commence with a description of the subject under review.



The upper surface of the head is almost blue-grey,slate coloured {slightly washed with buff in female},and streaked with a dull blackish brown. On the neck and shoulders the grey becomes a black-ash colour. The back is rufous brown,broadly streaked with black,however the rump and upper tail coverts are a bright olive and not streaked.

The wings are dark brown,and all the feathers more or less broadly edged with rufous brown,the tail feathers are similar but tinted olive brown. The chin ,throat and sides of the neck and upper breast bluish ash ,the lower breast and abdomen in the centre a whitish ash colour,the under tail coverts are buffish white, with brown streaks. The bill is thin {unlike the stocky bill of the sparrows.} and of a brownish colourthe lower mandible is slightly paler. The iris is hazel coloured.

During the summer months the Dunnock may easily be overlooked on account of its retiring nature and the sober tints of its plumage.They shuffle forward with tail flicking regularly and lacks the hop of the sparrows. They often flt low to the ground and quickly disappear into a bush or hedgerow.

This species is approximately 14 cm {five and a half inches} and weigh 21 gm.

Dunnock's blend in well with the foliage

Image by Dal { dalswildlifesite.}

General information

Here in the UK,with the exception of the more exposed northern islands,this bird is generally distributed. Some of its alternative names such as Hedge Accentor,Shuffle wing,Molly and Smoky are all misleading in one way or another. The name referred to by many writers the Hedge sparrow {which it is still called in many localities] is also misleading for it is not closely related to the sparrows.

It is however, a familiar bird that abides with us all the year round and will { I hope } never desert us. It is just as happy in gardens,orchards,groves,shrubberies,plantations ,hedges,as in the dense undergrowth of copses and woods. During the winter, like the European Robin,it seeks out the habitation of man in the UK,and takes advantage of any food to be procured from him. It is one of the first songsters to be heard in suburban and it certainly cheers up the wet dreariness of February.

 Although the song itself is not very remarkable in its execution, it is bright and clear but less plaintive and varied than that of the Robin,and not so much musical as that of the wren. It consists of a very few notes,but these are made the most of,so that the affect is decidedly pleasing. Also in mild winters it may be heard when most other birds are silent.

" I thought the sparrow's note from heaven,

Singing at dawn,from the Alder bough;

I brought him in his nest at even,-

He sings the song,but it pleases not now;

For I did not bring home the river and sky;

He sang to my ear-they sang to my eye"

Like the Chaffinch, the Dunnock runs and hops. On the ground it almost invariably runs with its head depressed as if constantly looking for food,and when it catches sight of a spider or a seed it hops forward shuffling its wings with a curious rapid action.

When passing down a garden path this bird generally keeps close to the border, dodging now and again under shrub with a business-like action which almost reminds one of a mouse. It is rarely seen in lofty trees,it prefers the shrubs and hedges among which it drops from branch to branch,peering about in the manner of a Tit for insect food.

The Rev.Morris { A history of British Birds-1867} remarks of the Dunnock's hardiness-" Even in the depths of the severest winter,when,as in this February 1853, the ground is everywhere covered with snow a foot deep,and you would think that every motion must be chilled in the breast of even the hardiest bird that is exposed to the damaging attacks of the two 'weaved sisters' the cold and hunger,by night and by day;you will see the Dunnock flirting about some low bush in the splendid sunshine that succeeds bitter blasts which have come and gone,and warbling its unpretending little lay; as if to show that an even and quiet temper is that which will best sustain under the most adverse circumstances of life.Now it has come down upon the snow ,and its tiny feet move nimbly over the crystal surface,its tail moved quickly up and down the while. And now it stops for a few moments,now hops on again,and now is joined by its mate,pursuing or pursued;or half hopping,half walking-its usual gait,it approaches the door, in search of chance crumbs,which if you are charitably disposed,you will have placed there for any feathered pensioners,whom the inclemancy of the season may compel to a more intimate acquaintance than would otherwise have chosen"


Copyright Ste Bond. { see Bondy's wildlife images.}

Dunnocks in captivity and historical observations.

Before wild birds were fully protected by the law {with exceptions} they were regularly caught, to be kept, as aviary or cage birds and even for food. Bird catchers made a good living out of this employment. There follows some historical notes on the subject.

Butler, { British Wild Birds with their Nest and Eggs,1896-98},remarks that " Mr Stevenson is mistaken in thinking the Dunnock is not quarrelsome.I have seen it disputing vigorously with a Skylark,in the open for the possession of an insect,and a hen bird which I kept for several years in an aviary,killed several titlarks and finally robbed a pair of Yellowhammers of their nest; in which she deposited a full clutch of infertile eggs;and sat upon them."

 Butler goes on to add, " Another point in which I differ from that author is that, he speaks of the Accentor {Dunnock} as singing as sweetly in an aviary as out of doors. From the many birds which, from time to time, I have kept, not one ever made the slightest attempt at singing. When first caught few birds are more wild, and they show their wildness in an idiotic manner which is simply exasperating,spending the whole day,excepting when feeding, in flying perpendicularly from earth to the roof,in one corner of the aviary, and dropping back headlong;sometimes it takes three to four weeks before they abandon this senseless acrobatic performance."

" In a cage the Dunnock becomes comparatively tame in a few days;but then it is more liable to the distressing ophphalmic disease than in an aviary. Moreover being extremely restless,it hops incessantly from perch to perch and becomes very irritating. The only sound I have ever heard from my Dunnock's was sharp and rather short high whistle,which I took to be a call note;and what with their stupidity,pugnacity and sulky silence in captivity,this species in my opinion,is the very worst subject for aviary life.In the garden and the country it is charming,but as a pet it is contemptible"

 " I once tried rearing the species from the nest,but made the mistake of feeding it upon hard boiled eggs and sweet biscuits.The young should certainly have been fed principally upon moistened ant's cocoons and cut up meal worms or small caterpillars"

According to Meyer 1884,when caged the Dunnock still shows a decoded partiality towards terrestrial habits very commonly roosting upon the floor of its cage.When it sleeps its legs are much bent,and its body held in an horizontal position ; when awake also, its attitude is singularly different from that of most small birds,and its manners remarkably quiet and retiring.

Meyer goes on to note that " The male and female when caged together show great attachment,constantly sitting and roosting side by side and in winter pressing closely to one another. They also become much attracted to companions,even of a different species.We possessed one,a fine male bird and an excellent singer,which was so much attached to its only companion,a male redbreast, that on the latter escaping by accident from the cage,the Dunnock became dull,neglected its food, and sat with ruffled feathers,and appeared so drooping and sad, that we thought it necessary to give the poor solitary its liberty, in order to save its life"

 Meyer, also added, " To their human friends these birds also appear grateful and attached.We kept a pair one winter in a garden cage and not desiring to prolong their imprisonment,we let them out early in the spring,as soon as we thought they could comfortably be able to find their subsistence.They were no sooner free, than instead of forsaking us,they commenced building themselves a nest in a leafless hedge,about two yards from their former prison"

The natural food of the Dunnock consists largely of insects,spiders, worms and the seeds of weeds. The song is a high pitched warble with little variation in pitch,it has been likened to the squeaky wheels of a supermarket trolly. I think this is a little unfair as the little warbling notes are quite pleasing.


Courtesy of Biodiversity Heritage LibraryLord Lilford { Courtest of the { BHL}

Many old writers refer to the birds as being in pairs.We now know that the Dunnock has adapted and has made use of many breeding strategies. Both male and females want to make sure that their genes are passed on to the next generation.Where food is plentiful,territories need not be so big,and so there is much less opportunity for overlap with those of other birds. Where life is tougher,the territories need to be bigger and that means more interaction with other Dunnocks.

To females, that may mean mating with more than one male,in the hope that both may help her rear her chicks. Clearly that doesn't suit the male. So before mating they may try to remove a rivals sperm by pecking the females rear end {The cloaca-through which both poo and eggs pass} to encourage her to reject it.{see photograph above}.

However, what works for one pair of Dunnock's might not work for another and there are several different strategies they may use.

A male paired with a female {monogammy}

More than one male paired with the same female { polyandry}

A male paired with more than one female {polygony}

Pairs with two males and two females {polygynandry} and all this may be going on under your shrubbery.! {Source RSPB} Dunnocks are early nesters and may commence as early as March,it regularly raises two broods per season.The nest of the Dunnock has been the subject for artists more than any other species, and yet many illustrations are depicted in a form that most birders have never encountered-a perfect cup of very fine bents,root fibre and moss,thickly lined with black horse hair and one or two soft fluffy feathers. Butler says on the subject " One nest of this character I found on May,1st, 1884, and is the only one of this kind I have ever seen."


Beautiful sky blue eggs.

Image courtesy of nottsexminer. CC BY-SA 3.0 LicenseOriginally posted on Flickr-uploaded by Jirib

The nest

The nest is warm and cosy in appearance, rather deep, the outer walls being generally enclosed in a framework of coarse twigs,rough roots of couch grass or thick grass-like stalks,and occasionally fragments of dead furze. The walls themselves are thick and somewhat loosely formed of green moss, frequently intermixed with bents and sometimes a little wool and a small,soft feather or two. Very rarely nests have been discovered with no moss at all ,but in most nests moss is frequently used.

The position of the nest varies a good deal but it is rarely found more than four or five feet from the ground. It is frequently built in a hedge, but I have also encountered the nest of this species in bramble,gorse and in ivy growing on walls.

In 1887,Mr.A E Shaw recorded the discovery of a nest built in a cabbage plant,and Gray { Birds of Scotland} mentions a nest placed at the base of a Hart's tongue fern on a ledge in a cave at Alisa Craig. The Rev.Charles Forge of Driffield, records in the 'Zoologist' pages 658-659, that he found a nest of this species among the small branches of an Elm tree, standing apart from any hedge.It was placed close to the bole or trunk of the tree at about ten feet from the ground. Externally it was composed of wheat straw,intermingles with recently dead twigs of the Elm, to which the dried leaves were still attached. it had no other lining than the green moss commonly used by the Hedge Accentor { another old name for the species} in the construction of its nest and contained a single egg"

The nest is cosy

Image courtesy of nottsexminer CC BY-SA 3.0 License.
Originally posted on Flickr uploaded by Fae

The eggs and young

The eggs of the Dunnock are so conspicuous that every countryman is familiar with them. They usually number four to five. They are a beautiful turquoise blue color {see photograph above} and lack any markings and they are usually of a perfect oval shape.

The nest of the Dunnock is a well known target for the Cuckoo. Swaysland 'Familiar Wild Birds} remarks,-" When a young cuckoo has taken surreptitious possession of its nest the Dunnock's affection for, its own offspring seems to have been entirely lost,and other habits equally changed" It is now known that the huge red gape of the baby cuckoo is very similar to the gape of a young Dunnock and stimulates the foster parents to recognize it and feed it.

The eggs of the Dunnock are incubated by the female for about fifteen days. When the young chicks break into the world they are fed a nutritious diet of insects and their larvae. they grow very quickly and leave the nest in a further twelve to fifteen days after hatching. At this point independence is soon achieved and the parents will begin preparations for a second brood.

The young on leaving the nest wear a dull mottled plumage and lack any grey-slate colour on the head or underparts.

UK Conservation 2021

UK -Amber list due to declines of over 25% in the last fifty years or so.

Europe-Species of least concern 

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