The feeder is buzzing with the usual garden birds. Blue tits, great tits, coal tits, house sparrows and chaffinches are just a taster of the species that flock to our feeders, grabbing our attention and making their presence known. So mesmerised by this activity, we lose focus on all else that is going on around. But what else could there be? Why look elsewhere when there are so many birds right there in front of us? Well, because quite simply, beneath the hustle and bustle of the feeder, down among the fallen leaves and deep within the bushes, are a pair of eyes that peek out secretively. They belong to a being that is often forgotten about and usually goes unseen, invisible to those who do not look for it. But what is this strange and mysterious creature? Is it a cat, waiting patiently to pounce on any of our unsuspecting garden visitors? Or perhaps some mysterious beast that lurks in the darkest depths of every garden, watching and waiting for the right time to strike. Unfortunately (or very fortunately) it is not as dramatic as all that. In fact, our secretive visitor is actually another small bird who goes by the latin name of Prunella modularis, or, more simply, the dunnock.
So, who is the dunnock when he’s at home and what is there to know about him? Well, although dunnocks are common in many gardens, it may surprise some people to know that they are actually a member of the accentor family and members of this family are typically found in tougher, mountainous environments. Dunnocks however, have managed to adapted to life in more lowland habitats, whilst still being adept at living in higher, mountainous regions. So, does their latin name reflect this type of wild existence? Actually, no. In fact, the latin name of the dunnock means ‘little brown singer’ and is of course a reference to the tuneful warbling song that this little bird can belt out.
Looking at a dunnock, he may not seem like the most interesting or spectacular of the worlds birds. The dull colours may not inspire the same feelings of wonder that the colours of many a bird of paradise do, but this does not make them any less important or unique. Now, although they may not have not suffered at the hands of the plume trade like birds of paradise, they do have their own problems. Unfortunately for dunnocks in the UK, their conservation status is Amber, because between the 1970s and 1980s, after a time of population stability, the numbers of this secretive bird fell by 50%. Although numbers have since shown some recovery, they are still not stable enough to warrant green status. So far, the reason for their decline remains undetermined, but it is possible that it is related to changes in woodland management. Dunnocks rely on shaded areas of ground, underneath vegetation and such places are often removed by, or for, grazing animals.
Dunnocks are not usually one of the main visitors to the typical garden bird feeder and this is definitely true in my garden. Although you may see them rear their heads occasionally as they are partial to a few seeds, you are more likely to see them rummaging through dead leaves, searching for insects. Nesting in hedges, these birds are not too fussy, nor too tricky to attract. In fact, if you have a bird feeder, a few hedges and a few hidden areas in your garden, you are likely to see a dunnock or two on your patch. Though similar to sparrows in their colour, they are more slender, both in body and beak and have more grey around their heads.
Unfortunately for the dunnock, there is something more dark in their lifestyle, as they are one of the main hosts to a type of parasitism. Now, the word parasitism often makes us think of insects such as parasitic wasps, or creatures that burrow under the skin of unsuspecting animals. Although not as gruesome as that, this type of parasitism still has quite an effect on the dunnock. So who is this ‘parasite?’ The cuckoo. That’s right, dunnock nests are often invaded by a lone cuckoo egg. As we know, birds that play host to this species remain unaware and feed the rapidly growing cuckoo chick as if it were one of their own. This can and usually does have a detrimental impact upon those other chicks in the nest. Often, chicks can suffer from starvation as the large cuckoo takes the majority of the food, or, they are evicted from the nest by the cuckoo chick in order to reduce competition for food.
So, next time you’re watching the wildlife in your garden, take a look at those dark patches that lie under the trees, or glance into the bushes that seem deserted and quiet. If you look closely and wait patiently, you may spy this interesting little creature, hopping secretively through the shrubbery. Take the time to appreciate him, and remember, even those who look dull and uninteresting have their secrets.
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