The Dunnock – Sex, Bugs and Rock and Roll

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Her familiar slate-grey face appears in the forsythia hedge. She looks small, her breast a ruffle of a fluff and downy feathers, shrugging, hunched against the icy blast of a stiffening north-easterly breeze and damp from the driving sleet that has soaked the shrubs in a slush of semi-frozen rain. Her marble-black pupils glisten against the deep, reflective maroon of her iris, twitching nervously this way and that, scanning the fence-line and the fig trees for the bullish Robins that have taken to chasing her from the bird table if she ventures too close to the mealworms and sunflower hearts.

With the coast clear, she hops from the newly budding forsythia and onto the top slat of the arched fence. Her rich cherry-wood legs and talons grip deep into the wood-grain as she sits and eyes me through the window. This routine is a daily one, this little Dunnock the first of the morning birds to spring from the dawn half-light in search of an easy meal. She knows me. She knows that if our eyes meet and the table is empty, I’ll tread outdoors to refill the table and she will get rich pickings ahead of her feathered neighbours. She doesn’t flinch as I restock the station with mealworms and dried insects and fill the feeder with sunflower hearts that now empties daily at the hands of a particularly greedy flock of Goldfinches. At no more than arms length she waits patiently as I speak gently to her, share a muttering of discontent at the awful weather and wish her a happy breakfast. Not long now, I tell her. Spring is coming.

The Dunnock feels it too. She has spent the last two weeks investigating both of the new open-fronted nest boxes I’ve strategically placed on the outer-side of the garden wall, tucked away and hidden by the undergrowth and lower branches of the young sycamore. Last week she had gathered neatly some small twigs and placed them carefully within one of the boxes, stockpiling. The dramatic change in weather, a sudden cold blast and days of sleet seem to have brought a halt to any plans of nest-building. In a way I’m glad; nesting season for the Dunnock doesn’t usually begin until mid-March and between now and then there is still a chance of real snow, still a chance of failure. She’s wise to it.

Back inside, I watch her shuffle comically, sideways along the top of the fence. This nervous dance, toing and froing, precedes her morning feed. Every now and then she bows forward, her pretty ash-blue head necking slimly from the tortoiseshell of her black and chestnut streaked back and wings as if to make a sudden beeline for the food, but she resists, her bright autumn elm-leaf eyes dart back and forth nervously, uneasy at the arrival of a male Blackbird scalding the thick, cold air with siren-song before stabbing heartily at and butchering a Cox apple on the lawn. Satisfied that the Blackbird is no threat, the Dunnock darts from fence to table, stabs cleanly at a mealworm with her glossy, razor clam black bill and just as swiftly resumes position on the fence, aligns the morsel and swallows hungrily. One down, dozens to go.

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The Dunnock is often considered unremarkable, just one of those ‘little brown jobs’. It’s an unfair assumption. Unlike the often scruffy, erratic plumage of Sparrows, the Dunnock is neater, sleeker and classier. On closer inspection, the sublime ash-grey mask of the head and neck are sharp and pristine, encircling flush, warm chestnut cheeks. A spirit-level straight grey collar gives way to burnt umber and dark cocoa-brown streaked wings and back whilst underneath the ash bib melts into a mottled chalky breast. It is something else that sets the Dunnock apart from other ‘little brown jobs’ though; rare is it to find another bird of such personality in the garden. Skittish, nervous, charming. There are few sights so heart-warming as a Dunnock hopping and crouching, ducking and diving through the garden borders on a fresh spring morning, weaving in and out of the undergrowth purposefully, intent on finding the next meal. With the arrival of the breading season, new, remarkable traits arise. In Spring the Dunnock is a bird of split-personality, a bird of misadventure, of bigamy. A brown, hormonal ball of intense lust, treachery and trickery.

Female Dunnocks are often polyandrous, breeding with two or more males at once; a very rare trait in the bird world. Females hold strict territories that are generally much larger than male territories, these territories often overlap with those of multiple males which means that, as a general rule, there are more males to females and so the males find themselves competing with each other. The aim for all of the birds is of course to reproduce as successfully as possible. Male birds can often be seen pecking at the cloaca (the reproductive organ) of the female to stimulate the ejection of a rival males sperm. Copulation between Dunnocks take just one-tenth of a second and single birds can mate over one hundred times in a single day.

To say that Dunnocks lead an extraordinary sex life would be a vast understatement! Studies have even shown that in a single brood of Dunnock eggs, more than one male can be genetically represented, and so this leads to unusual living arrangements and parental responsibilities. Often, more than one male, suspecting at least a proportion of the chicks to be their own, will assist with feeding the young. This is an evolutionary win for the Dunnocks and multi-parenting like this would likely increase the chance of brood success and thus the success of the species. There are variations in the format; sometimes the female will raise a brood alone and on occasion, where male populations are less widespread, a single male may help to raise the young of more than one female. Studies have shown that in the ‘normal’ polyandrous system, males will not discriminate between their own young and those of another male, but as their are aspects of hierarchy in Dunnock populations, the male with greater, more dominant access to the female, will usually feed the young significantly more.  It’s not the typical Disney love story that you might come to expect from such a shy, timid hedgerow bird. With Spring around the corner and that all important month of March, if the boxing Hares are mad, then the Dunnock is far madder. Pay attention in the garden and you might find yourself watching a spectacle fit for any wildlife documentary, a scene rarely paralleled in the natural world. Not bad at all I’d say, not least for a ‘little brown job’.

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