Dunnock: the bird profiles


I am particularly interested in garden wildlife which is why I did my Master's degree with a focus on "animal ecology". I am convinced that beneficial insects and wildlife are a sustainable and effective alternative to many of the products we use on our plants. I am also a passionate birdwatcher and rarely go for a walk without my binoculars.

Favourite fruit: kiwi, apple and redcurrant
Favourite vegetables: tomatoes and green beans

It could be hiding in your garden as we speak. The dunnock is hard to spot, but there are some tell-tale signs it’s around. Here’s everything you should know about the dunnock.

A dunnock singing on a flower
Dunnocks have a lovely song [Photo: Vogelfotograf/ Shutterstock.com]

The dunnock (Prunella modularis) is a rather inconspicuous songbird. Sometimes called hedge sparrow, it usually hides in dense vegetation, perfectly camouflaged by its plumage. This camouflage goes somewhat to waste, however, when the dunnock decides to sing from the bushes! Dunnocks visit gardens more and more nowadays, so it is worth keeping an eye (and ear) out for this talented singer. Read on to find out how to identify a dunnock and provide it a home in your garden.

How to recognise the dunnock

Dunnocks are medium-sized songbirds with brown and black, striped plumage. In fact, at first glance, they resemble a house sparrow. However, unlike the house sparrow’s typical, strong beak, dunnocks have small, narrow beaks. One easy way to spot a dunnock is to look out for its blue-grey neck and throat.

A dunnock perched on a branch
You can spot a dunnock from its blue-grey neck and throat [Photo: John Navajo/ Shutterstock.com]

How to recognise a young dunnock

Young dunnocks lack the distinctive blue-grey throat and neck of the adults; they are striped black and brown all over. What is more, a young dunnock’s beak is bright orange at its base.

Close-up of a dunnock’s face
Young dunnocks do not yet have any blue-grey colours [Photo: bearacreative/ Shutterstock.com]

How to recognise a dunnock egg

Dunnock eggs are about 1.7 centimetres tall and are a brilliant turquoise. You will find them in a bowl-shaped nest made of stalks, roots and other plant fibres, padded with feathers and animal hair.

Two dunnock eggs in a nest
Dunnocks lay bright turquoise eggs [Photo: Coatesy/ Shutterstock.com]

How to tell the difference between male and female dunnocks

It is very difficult to distinguish male dunnocks from females. The males do tend to be more blue-grey, so they are slightly more conspicuous. However, this is very variable, so err on the side of caution.

What is the perfect habitat for dunnocks?

Dunnocks love forests with lots of undergrowth. Coniferous forests are best, but they are also happy with deciduous and mixed forests. Unfortunately, because many forests do not have much undergrowth, dunnocks are increasingly common in parks, gardens and other green spaces.

A puffed-up dunnock in a bush
Dunnocks prefer thick vegetation [Photo: Sandra Standbridge/ Shutterstock.com]

Where do dunnocks build their nests?

Dunnocks build their nests in dense vegetation; be it hedges, bushes or small trees. The nests are always very well hidden, but close to the ground. It is because of this that dunnocks often fall victim to nest predators, such as martens, foxes and cats.

A dunnock holding nesting material
A dunnock with nesting material [Photo: ChristianRogersPhotograph/ Shutterstock.com]

When is breeding season for dunnocks?

Dunnocks begin breeding in April. Females tend to incubate the eggs the most. Incubation lasts about two weeks, after which the hatchlings remain in the nest for another 14 days until they are strong enough to explore. Owing to sparse vegetation, particularly at the beginning of the year, it is easy for predators to spot dunnock eggs and, sadly, the first brood is often lost. As such, dunnocks will usually breed two or three times a year.

Where do dunnocks spend winter?

Dunnocks are part of a family of birds whose populations split; some will migrate south for the winter, whilst the rest stays put. In the UK however, it’s likely that your garden dunnock hasn’t travelled too far!

Dunnock perched on a winter branch
Most dunnocks will be with us over winter [Photo: PJ photography/ Shutterstock.com]

What does a dunnock’s song sound like?

Dunnocks have a clear and high-pitched song. They will often sing from high ground, and since they are so difficult to spot, this is a sure-fire way to identify them.

A dunnock’s alarm call is as bright and clear as its song, but less easy to identify. It consists of a sharp, whistling sound: “Tiih!”.

Dunnock singing on a thistle
Dunnocks like to sing from up high [Photo: SanderMeertinsPhotography/ Shutterstock.com]

Help the dunnock!

Due to the progressive decline of their natural habitat, dunnocks are forced to move closer to humans. Thankfully, the gifted singers feel at home in gardens. Here, we’ll give you some tips on how to create a dunnock-friendly garden.

What do dunnocks eat?

Dunnocks change their diet throughout the year. In spring and summer, they look for protein-rich small animals – insects, spiders, worms and snails – to support their young. While in winter they prefer fine seeds from perennials and wild herbs.

To help your dunnocks in the cold season, avoid large grains and reach for softer foods.

If you can, try to provide your garden birds with small seeds from local perennials and shrubs, such as thistles, elderberries, nettles and sorrel. Native, bird-friendly wild herbs are also an important source of nutrition.

Dunnock holding an insect in its mouth
Dunnocks love insects [Photo: Simon P Lewis/ Shutterstock.com]

Note: Be sure to only cut your perennials in spring, so they will provide enough food in winter. Don’t worry: the birds will peck off seeds for as long as they can.

Which birdhouses are suitable for dunnocks?

Standard birdhouses are unsuitable for dunnocks; they prefer to build their own nests in thickets. Help them out by planting dense bushes and hedges and try to avoid thinning them too much. In fact, even a large pile of brushwood would be a welcoming home for a dunnock.

Note: Thorny bushes like the wild rose provide great protection for dunnocks. The songbirds will raise their young within the bushes, safe from predators.

Wild rose and its thorns
Thorny vegetation adds a layer of protection [Photo: patjo/ Shutterstock.com]

How can I support dunnocks even more?

While supporting birds in your garden is wonderful, it is always important to try and preserve their natural habitat. Here, you can help by encouraging sustainable and ecological agriculture that does not use harmful pesticides, and forestry that promotes tree growth and offers birds and other animals a home.

Back in your garden, selecting insect-friendly plants not only attracts pollinators and other beneficial insects, but ensures a rich menu for garden birds. Also consider adding a bird bath to your garden, which will be welcomed by a number of garden birds, especially on hot days. But be careful: at high temperatures, bird baths become a breeding ground for disease. Be sure to clean your bird bath regularly – if it is particularly hot, it is actually best to clean the bird bath daily.

By helping the dunnock, you will be helping many other bird species, such as the black redstart and the wagtail.