I have a confession to make. I like Dunnocks! There … I said it.
I have always had a soft spot for the denizens of the darkest recess of the hedgerow. They have had a lot to put up with in life. For starters they are on the menu for Sparrowhawks and their ilk, and then Cuckoos are particularly fond of using Dunnocks to raise their young, but worse than that, mankind has dealt them a bum hand and decided they are a bit dull and uninteresting. Their name itself is derived from the old English word meaning “little brown bird”.
No one really knows what to call a Dunnock. Which is a shame, as it is a unique British bird. Back in the dim and distant past, the Dunnock was known as the Hedge Warbler, which was much friendlier, but it is not a true warbler, so that had to go to. To add insult to injury, the Dunnock song, which to me is quite pleasing albeit not of warbler quality, has been described by some as sounding like a squeaky trolley wheel. Then they were called Hedge Sparrows, but then THEY (the “they” that decides such birding matters) decided that this was misleading, as they have nothing to do with the genus that is Sparrows, passer. So they got saddled with the slightly demeaning sounding name, Dunnock. Let’s be honest, it doesn’t sound all that complimentary.
Their name is now under review again, and at least this one incorporates their uniqueness. The Dunnock belongs to the genus accentor, which makes it the only bird of the accentor family in the UK; in fact there are only two accentor species in the whole of Europe, his nearest cousin preferring the high Alps, I suspect it is trying to evade the attention of the birding hierarchy. Soon you may no longer have Dunnocks in your garden, but Hedge Accentors. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue does it?
The Dunnocks high spot in history came when a Victorian clergyman the Reverend Morris decided that this bird was the embodiment of virtue, simply due to its humble and uninteresting lifestyle. An image it well and truly shattered in the 1990’s, when Sir David Attenborough came along with the Life Of Birds team and studied them. It turned out that the Dunnock broke very taboo that is possible, including some I had to look up in a dictionary! You name it, a Dunnock does it! Their image of boring little birds destroyed forever!
I think they are stunningly pretty little birds, with subtle variations in their plumage feathers. It is a wonderful mixture of chocolaty browns and greys. They are fascinating to watch as they move around the shady areas of the hedgerow. When in breeding mode their extravagant wing flicking; persistent chasing of the females and scratchy song bring them out of the shadows and into the spotlight which I think they deserve.
So let’s give it up for all those little brown jobs out there, and give a slow nod of appreciation for all the Reed, Cetti, Grasshopper and Sedge Warbler.. Dunnocks may not have the look of a Bearded Tit, or the neon glow of a Blue Tit, but they always will have a special place in my heart, why not let them into yours?
Brilliant piece Ant. I like all the bits of history you include. I like Dunnocks too. That markings around their eyes are particularly pretty. Didn't realise that they belonged to a family that is so rare in Europe.
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