Shy and unobtrusive bird that can be mistaken for a sparrow, but is not related.
The dunnock gives an overall impression is of a uniformly coloured and rather dark little bird. The dunnock has a short neck, plump body shape and brown plumage. It closely resembles the house sparrow but is slimmer. The adult’s head, neck, throat and breast are slate-grey, with brown streaks on the crown and greyish-white streaks on the face. The mantle, scapulars and wing coverts are a rich brown, streaked with black. The closed wing is dark, with buff fringes forming its wing bar. They have a rump of streaked brown and a blackish-brown tail. The slate-grey of breast shades into brown flanks and to whitish-brown on the belly. The dunnock’s eyes are noticeably red-brown, above a bill that is thin and pointed but deeper at the base, coloured blackish with a pale-brown base. Legs are pinkish-brown. Sexes are similar. Juveniles are like adults but browner, with more streaks on underparts and a striking wing bar. They can also be identified by the lack of grey on the head and throat.
The dunnock’s call, a sharp ‘tzchik’, is most often heard as it sings from a perch. Otherwise, it tends to stay well hidden. The song is a weak, truncated warble.
Dunnocks are often referred to as hedge sparrows. For many years the two birds were thought to be the same species.
Dunnocks mainly eat insects, with some seeds in the winter.
Dunnocks inhabit any well vegetated ares with scrub, brambles and hedges. Also young conifer stands and dense spruce plantations. Dunnocks can be seen all year round. In the UK they are common and widespread.
Dunnock preening its feathers
The dunnock is unobtrusive for much of the year, creeping along close to the ground, twitching its wings and tail nervously. It has jerky, light and springing flight. The dunnock often perches in view when singing, favouring the tips of young spruce, but otherwise generally remains hidden. It will dive into cover at the slightest disturbance.
Dunnocks have quite a unique quirk when it comes to breeding. Male birds peck the females’ cloaca (reproductive orifice), in an attempt to remove the results of previous’ partners copulation. Because females mated so often, males had developed a technique to remove their rivals’ sperm to ensure that only they fathered chicks. Dunnocks have highly variable systems for breeding and young raising. They might establish monogamous pairs, or have relationships involving up to four birds. Regardless, females will lay a clutch of 4-5 eggs, which are smooth, glossy blue and can have reddish spotting. The incubation period is 12-13 days. The fledgeling period is 12-15 days. They will raise 2-3 broods a year.
The dunnock’s typical lifespan is 2 years.
Dunnocks are a widespread species. In Britain they are generally resident, not moving more than a mile or so from where they were born. Northern European birds are more adventurous and can undertake migrations of considerable distances.
The UK breeding population is comprised of 2,300,000 territories. The UK conservation status is Amber.