I have been watching a pair of dunnocks in the garden and it is easy to see why this is a bird that many people overlook. It does, after all, have rather unremarkable brown-streaked plumage and a tendency to feed out of sight beneath shrubs and bushes.
But appearances can be deceptive; for the dunnock has a most racy sex life which if replicated amongst the good folk of a country parish would be deemed as quite scandalous.
The dunnock indulges in virtually every mating strategy possible. More than one male can be paired with the same female, or a male can be paired with more than one female. And two or more males may be with two or more females at the same time. But there are also some puritan birds who adopt the seemingly boring practice of monogamy.
Confused? Well it is all a game of adapting to the circumstances and trying to successfully pass on one’s genes to the next generation – or as one naturalist so aptly described dunnock breeding behaviour, a case of ‘every man for himself’.
In the scenario of one female and two males, the hen dunnock plays a very clever strategy. She will mate with one male, but then when the other male comes along he will peck at her rear which causes her to eject the sperm from the first suitor, before he too then mates with her. What all this means is that the two males think they are the fathers and will both therefore help to feed the young in the nest, dramatically increasing the chances of the brood being successfully raised.
If all this is not enough, at the peak of the courting season dunnocks may mate with each other up to 100 times a day. Furthermore, all this is happening right beneath your neatly trimmed berberis and cotoneaster bushes. Ooh-er missus, time for a lie down, me thinks.
This fascinating behaviour was only discovered in the 1990s and highlights how much we still have to learn about nature, even right on our own doorstep. Perhaps it also shows how we tend to take our more familiar creatures very much for granted and often pay them only cursory attention.
The dunnock illustrates this in other ways. Okay, so the bird does appear a bit drab at first glance. But look closer and the plumage is in fact rather intricate; a rufous brown with dark streaks and a lovely slate-grey head, throat and breast. It also has a most wonderful short and musical song at this time of year. One of my earliest memories as a child was finding a dunnock’s nest lodged in a moss-covered tree stump, the four eggs glistening like azure pebbles.
The most interesting life of the apparently unassuming dunnock should really serve as encouragement to us all to look that little bit closer at our everyday fauna and flora. In other words, the deeper you delve, the greater the surprises revealed. Sometimes quite shocking ones!