Devilish Dunnocks

Spend any time on the internet looking at birds or specifically garden birds and no matter what platform people are using to share their images and query identifications there is one garden bird that seems to puzzle garden birdwatchers here in Britain more than any other and that is the humble Dunnock.

The unobtrusive, plain Prunella modularis to give the Dunnock it’s Sunday name is perhaps the epitome of ‘little brown job’. Small, slim, brown and grey, no flashy wing-bars, no bright colours and perhaps most notably a bird that mainly stays around cover, on the ground and uses feeders very sparingly all of this contributes to making our only regular member of the accentor family unfamiliar enough to flummox many watchers.

Dunnocks feed on insects and small seeds, foraging around and under trees, shrubs and bushes generally. There is anecdotal evidence that they are gradually exploiting garden food sources. In my own garden I have noted Dunnocks regularly foraging below feeders, they seem particularly keen on peanut fragments; they are also frequent if brief visitors to the bird table. Occasionally an individual makes an ungainly attempt to access a hanging feeder. Maybe one day they will adapt to use feeders in the same way as House Sparrows and Tree Sparrows have?


While many Dunnocks remain solitary through the winter period if you feed regularly and have several feeders it is possible to attract small gatherings, I have counted at least 10 feeding around my garden, almost always spread out in small groups of two-three around the hedges and shrubs of the borders.

By the time we start to head past Christmas males will begin to find their voices ahead of next Spring and their clear, strong 2-3 second song bursts will ring out again. Listen out for a song that always seem to be a little hurried, repeated often. They frequently sit atop a conifer or bush to sing so can be fairly easy to pick out, dull, grey/brown with pinkish legs and a thin bill.

Often during early Spring Dunnocks appear in threes, two males and a female. The devilish female Dunnocks encourage both males to mate with low posture and fluffed feathers. There is method in the apparent madness of this love triangle and it is to the benefit of the female with opportunities to mate with both males and ensure that she is provided with sufficient food during the breeding period.


Our Garden Birder’s Diary is written by Northumberland-based birder Alan Tilmouth who has been birdwatching for over 30 years and writing about birds in various guises for the last decade. A keen garden birdwatcher, he also manages to unearth the odd rare bird on his travels. You can find Alan on Twitter and his Facebook blog.