Friday, 13 July 2007

When is a Sparrow not a Sparrow?

When it's a Dunnock! This small (just a bit smaller than a House Sparrow) rather insignificant bird is blessed with several names. As I grew up it was a Hedge Sparrow, then some more academic ornithologists decided on Hedge Accentor, the rest of the family, there are 13 altogether, are called Accentors. All the others are birds of mountain regions in Europe and Asia, and this name never caught on here. Then Dunnock came along. This name actually goes back to the 15th Century and the "dun" part comes from its colour, so it was literally dun bird.

As you can see from these pictures it has a pointed bill, suited to its insectivorous diet, although it will take other food in the garden. While I was watching this bird in the garden, it became agitated and called a high pitch alarm "squeak" repeatedly.

It the flew up to a tree and briefly stayed there before disappearing into the foliage still calling. When I looked up I could the the reason for it nervousness, high up a Sparrowhawk was circling. It was very high, my excuse for a rubbish picture, but the garden birds were aware of it.
The Sparrowhawk above is in active moult with at least one of its flight feathers (primaries) missing on each wing.

The Dunnock seems to meet the perfect criteria of an ideal life style. A pair, a nice neat nest, 3-5 neat blue eggs, just the stuff for a children's story. Only thing is, it couldn't be further from the truth. Dunnock social life makes Peyton Place, or Desperate Housewives look quite quite tame.

They may look innocent but the male endeavours to ensure that it is his genes that are passed to the next generation and he doesn't mind popping to his next door neighbour to do the business. She's not reluctant either as she wants the father of her brood to be the most virile about. All this was discovered a few year ago by Nick Davies working in the Cambridge Botanical Garden. The Dunnock is also one of the favourite hosts used by Cuckoos. The Cuckoos that use Dunnock nests lay eggs pretty much the same blue colour as those already there.


Anonymous said...

Hi. nice pictures dear...good luck in future...

Tony Morris said...

Thank you, I'd prefer it if you could add a signature, anonomous is so impersonal.