Monday Bird of the Week No.15 – The Dunnock

Unlike last week’s entry, this week we have a bird that is beyond any doubt brown. It is the quintessential ‘little brown job’. It is the Dunnock. But does ‘brown’ mean ‘boring’?


If you are both brown, and prone to skulking about in the undergrowth, it’s easy to dismiss you. After all, showy and bright birds sit out in the sun. This is very unfair on the Dunnock.

For starters, while muted browns and greys don’t scream ‘look at me’, that’s the point. The Dunnock is well camouflaged. On closer examination, those markings do have beauty too.

But even if I can’t convince you it looks interesting, its range of lifestyles most certainly are. It used to be the best kept secret in ornithology that Dunnocks had interesting sex lives, but recently it’s been featured on every nature documentary going. Nonetheless I’m going to repeat it.

Take a look at your nearest Dunnock pair. Is it really a pair? Or are there more than two that hang around together? Maybe three? It’s the easy assumption that this would be a parent and two young, or two parents and a chick. But, certainly in early spring, it could well be a female and two males. Because Dunnocks practice polyandry. In fact, they don’t practice it, they are experts at it. It’s the most common unit for Dunnocks, with a female attended on by two males. Sometimes both mate with her, sometimes only one alpha male does and the beta just helps defend the territory and attend the nest.

They don’t stop there. Depending on numbers in an area you can have polygyny, one male with multiple females. You can have polygynandry where multiple (generally two) males work together to defend a territory of multiple females. You can even get good old monogamy where there is one male and one female.

Their approach to mating systems is fluid, and they will go with whatever works for them in a particular region, based on numbers and ratios of birds. But given a choice they seem to prefer the one female, two males approach. This may offend the more conservative minded who sometimes like to hold birds up as great examples of how we should live, but it probably appeals to feminists!

So there we have it. Brown? Yes. Dull-looking? Arguably. Boring? Not in a million years. Doesn’t the bottom of your garden suddenly seem that bit more exciting?

This entry was posted in Biology, Bird of the Week, Birds and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

I welcome thoughts, comments and questions, so please feel free to share anything at all. Thanks, David

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