The dunnock, or house sparrow as some call it, is one of those LBJs as birders call them, “little brown jobs”, drab insigificant birds that are so easily overlooked and mistaken for sparrows. In point of fact, they belong to quite different families, dunnocks are accentors and sparrows are weavers. For the very observant, there are a good many of them in Greytown.
The dunnock is quiet in colour and in manner, unobtrusive rather than shy and will quietly scout about the driveway or under the bushes while I observe it, taking quick peeks at me, just to see what I am about. They have their own special character.
Their bodies are slate grey, streaked with a reddish brown, the deep brown upper mantle streaked black with a slate grey throat and chest and paler lightly striped under parts. They have a fine pointed black bill, unlike the sparrow, for catching insects. They sing in a neat precise manner, as if repeating something learnt by heart.
Their natural breeding range is Europe and western Asia. Several hundred birds were introduced here in New Zealand by the Acclimatisation Societies and private individuals between the 1860 and 1880s.
The Dunnock exhibits mating diversity comparable to that of humans: there are monogamous pairs, polyandrous females with their mates, polygynous males with their mates, and polygynandrous groups of males and females, each of whom has multiple mates. Polyandry is rare in birds, with only about 2% of species showing such a mating system.
The hen, apparently with some help from the cock builds the nest which is well concealed in thick undergrowth or a hedge, normally very close to the ground. It is a neat bowl of twigs, grass and moss lined with hair, feathers and moss.
The diet is mainly small invertebrates, beetles, spiders, flies, aphids, ants and worms. Some small fruits and seeds are also eaten. Most food is taken from the ground, usually not far away from cover.
In spite of being such nondescript birds, they are birds that have gained a lot of attention by people who matter. The famous eighteenth century naturalist, Gilbert White of Selbourne, thought them fine birds but called them hedge sparrows. He observed that they have a remarkable flirt with their wings in breeding time and as soon as frosty mornings come they make a very plaintive piping noise.
Emily Bronte knew the bird by the name dunnock and also knew that it is frequently a foster–parent of a cuckoo. In Wuthering Heights Ellen Dean is asked what she knows of the history of Heathcliff. She replies, “It’s a cuckoo’s, sir... and Hareton has been caste out like an unfledged dunnock”.
The cuckoos in Europe do indeed make shameless use of them but if our cuckoos do the same to them here, there seems to be no record, nor much interest as they are introduced birds..