The Dunnock – an often overlooked beauty

What was the first bird that you really took notice of? On pondering this question, one may recall an early experience of birds or perhaps a more recent occurrence. The first bird that I really took notice of was one that some may consider a ‘lowly’ example, the Dunnock.

This particular Dunnock was by no means the first bird I ever saw or could identify myself. In fact that was a Great-crested Grebe that my Grandfather pointed out to me on a family day out to Salhouse Broad. We occasionally joined his friends on their boat and from said vessel he also introduced me to Coots, Moorhens and Mute Swans.

No, this Dunnock joined me as I sat in a suburban garden on the outskirts of Norwich. I was participating in some ‘citizen science’ and taking part in the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’. This is where you observe and record the bird species you see in your garden over a designated hour and then submit the data so that trends can be monitored. I thoroughly recommend that anyone with even a mild interest in wildlife joins in with this easily accessible activity as giving something back to nature is a truly rewarding act.

So the Dunnock joined me in the garden and proceeded to accompany me for the entire hour. It was difficult not to take notice of him as the majority of the time he was a metre or so in front of me, confidently patrolling the lawn then stopping, cocking its head and picking off insects from the grass. Occasionally he would just stop and look at me and I would duly look back at him. I had started to take notice.

I had always considered Dunnocks to be the archetypal ‘Little Brown Job’, a term that birders tend to assign to any small, nondescript and obviously brown, bird. When you actually stop and properly take notice of a Dunnock a deep palette of colours and markings begins to take shape. As you delve further into the detail you realise just how intricate they actually are.

Bird identification guides often remark on the Dunnocks drab brown colouring and overall dark appearance. This somewhat lazy conclusion neglects to mention the linear streaking that runs down their mantle, bold and uniform; dropping down from their smoky grey, almost blue chest and throat. These birds are subtly beautiful, and in my opinion not at all drab. I only discovered this because I took notice in the first place.

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