Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

The Dunnock is a quaint, oak-brown-coloured resident which can be observed throughout the whole of Britain, except the Shetland Islands, and can be seen at most times of the year. Because of its relatively bland colour, it does have the potential to be “brushed off” as a humble House sparrow – hence it is often labelled the “hedge sparrow”. However, whereas the House sparrow is a habitual loafer, preferring the company of others in multitude, and usually seen confidently perched up high, the Dunnock has a penchant for life as a ground-dweller.

Hence, as a very unobtrusive, ground-feeding bird, the Dunnock can often be seen creeping along the ground close to the cover of bushes, brambles, scrub and other forms of dense vegetation. It exhibits an almost secretive method of going about its daily business, in a somewhat shuffling manner.

Both males and females are almost indistinguishable with streaked brown above, grey on the face and breast and streaked flanks. While feeding on the ground, the Dunnock quickly flicks its tail. In fact, the Dunnock is commonly regarded as the “shuffle-wing” because of this behaviour.

Dunnocks are famed songsters, using a rapid yet shrill Tseeping sound to signal others around them; in fact, their rapid tenth-of-a-second outbursts have been noted as “sexy-syllables”, which, interestingly, is the time, according to Paul Evans of the Guardian, it takes for a Dunnock to copulate; very rapid indeed.

Dunnock perched on wooden pole

Etymology and classification

The Latinate name is Prunella modularis, although they are also known by the relatively humble names “hedge accentor” or “hedge sparrow”. And, the term Dunnock is derived from old English (dun-, brown, + -ock, small: “little brown bird”).

The Dunnock is classified as an accentor, a group of birds in the Prunellidae family: there are only two in the whole of Europe, with just one in the UK. They are primarily of Asian origin, and can be distinguished by their slight statures, pot-bellied shape and pointed bills, which adapted for picking out insects over summer and eating seeds and berries over winter. According to Wikipedia, all but the Dunnock and the Japanese accentor are inhabitants of the mountainous regions of Europe and Asia.

Mating behaviour

Dunnocks engage in complex sexual activity classified as “polyandry” and “polygyny”. Polyandry occurs when a female shares several males, quite a rare behaviour among birds; polygyny is where a single male would monopolise several females. The Dunnock’s variable mating system is incredibly complex and fluid. This fluidity is derived from the fact that if food is provided in abundance, female territory size can considerably reduce; thus, allowing males to monopolise females more easily. Despite this, it is common for Dunnocks to shift between polyandry and polygyny depending on circumstance.


Dunnocks will prospect for insects and arachnids such as ants and spiders during summer, and seek out berries and seeds over winter. However, it’s perfectly acceptable to put out juicy equivalents like live mealworm, or even soaked dried mealworms, which make for an ideal summertime treat. Over winter, consider energy-boosting supplements, like insect suet blends or the popular Ultiva Gold seed mix; you Dunnocks will come back for more and more.

Interactive Dunnock

House sparrow vs Dunnock

If you’re not sure of the difference between House sparrows and Dunnocks, take a look below.

House sparrow (Passer domesticus)

House sparrow (Passer domesticus)

Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

Recommended bird food

Dried mealworm

Dried mealworms are the perfect nutritional food for your garden birds. Ideal for attracting species such as Blue tits, Starlings and Blackbirds, dried mealworms can be soaked in water over night for an extra juicy treat for your birds.

Mealworm suet pellets

Suitable for year round feeding, these suet pellets have been blended with dried mealworms to create a delicious, high energy treat for your garden birds.

Ultiva Gold Seed Mix

This hugely popular bird seed mix has been at the forefront of Garden Bird for many years. A top seller, the inspiration came from a missing link in the bird food chain – a blend focused on oil-rich ingredients.

Insect suet pellets

Containing a mix of real insects, these treats will give your garden birds a hearty meal in the winter months when natural food is scarce. Extremely nutritious, they’re packed with energy, protein, vitamins and minerals.