Identification

Although dunnocks are unexciting in appearance, their markings, once familiar, reveal their own beauty. They are grey on the head and chest, and brown elsewhere, with striated markings on the back. Sometimes these birds are known as hedge sparrows, although they are not actually related to sparrows; the body shape is very different, dunnocks having a sleeker body and thinner bill. Dunnock song is tuneless, but nonetheless a quite pleasant tinkling sound.

Size

13-14.5cm (5-5 3/4in) long

Distribution

The dunnock is resident throughout the UK except for the Shetland Isles. In winter the resident population is swelled by overwintering visitors from Europe.

Status

In the late 1970s and early 1980s dunnock populations fell drastically, particularly in woodland habitats. This may be a result of changes to their habitat and food availability. However they are still widespread and common and populations appear to have stabilised since then. Signs of recovery have appeared in recent years and so the species is not considered to be under severe threat. At present the dunnock is on the amber list of species of conservation concern.

Habitat preference

Dunnocks can be found in almost any well vegetated habitat. They prefer areas with plenty of cover but are otherwise habitat generalists. They can be found in gardens, parks, scrublands, woodlands and around fields in hedgerows.

Where to find them in the garden

Dunnocks typically spend a lot of time on the ground, usually in well covered areas. The most likely place to see them in the garden is in hedgerows, where you may see them hopping around on the ground or between the branches. You may become more aware of them in spring as they prepare to mate. Dunnocks have been discovered to have far from dull mating habits, with possible combinations extending beyond the usual male-female pairing to include one female and two males, or two females and two males.

Role in the garden

Primarily the dunnock feeds on insects, helping to control populations that may otherwise cause damage to the garden environment. Occasionally they will also feed on seeds. One interesting ecological feature is that dunnocks often play host to cuckoo eggs, raising the chicks as their own even after the young cuckoo has ejected the dunnock's own offspring. This is more likely to occur in woodland than in gardens, however a large garden with plenty of trees may provide a location for this classic case of deception.