Take on Nature: Humble dunnock seeking out territory as spring edges closer

The name dunnock comes from the old English words dunnakos/dunoke or donek, meaning ‘little brown one’

ALTHOUGH we have passed the significant date of February 1, Feast day of St Brigid, which for many in rural Ireland traditionally marks the first true day of spring, winter still bites.

In ancient times Lá Fhéile Bhride also marked the beginning of the Celtic Festival of ‘Imbolc', when our pagan ancestors celebrated the successful passing of winter and the beginning of the agricultural year. The druids regarded ‘Brid' as a most powerful and revered goddess who blessed the work of farmers and who brought fertility to the land and animals.

On the distinctly cold morning of Brigid's feast day, I watched the usual flurry of feathered activity around the nut feeders. Goldfinches, tits and siskins either waited their turn or in some instances squabbled to get ahead in the queue. Underneath in typical fashion, was the diminutive dunnock, almost apologetically picking up nut granules and small seeds spilled from above.

Sometimes called the ‘hedge sparrow' because of its overall brown sparrow-like colour, closer inspection reveals a much sleeker fine billed bird with an attractive blue-grey head and breast and rich brown upperparts.

The name dunnock comes from the old English words dunnakos/dunoke or donek, meaning ‘little brown one', which is also referenced in one of its Irish names, Donnóg, ‘brown bird'. Its scientific name Prunella modularis also translates as ‘little brown singer'. Glynn Anderson gives many other interesting Irish and English names for the bird (Birds of Ireland. Facts, Folklore and History 2008) such as Bráthair an dreoilín, the wren's brother and Máthair chéile, mother-in-law.

The link with the wren is probably the brownish colour but also its rapid warbling song. He also includes the names field sparrow, black wren, grey robin and hedge warbler.

Despite the many sparrow references, the dunnock is unrelated. It is a member, the only Irish representative, of the accentor family, a group of small ground and scrub dwelling birds with fine pointed bills which hop around picking out insects in summer and seeds and berries in winter.

Dunnocks are the only commonly found accentor in lowland areas, all the others inhabit upland areas of Europe and Asia. Its habit of quickly flicking its tail as it feeds has earned it yet another name the ‘shuffle wing'.

Sometimes called the Irish nightingale, the dunnock is a common resident throughout Ireland with an unhurried warbling song which resembles that of the wren, but lacks the smaller bird's aggressive intensity.

They are regular visitors to parks and gardens, never straying far from available cover in the form of suitable scrub, hedgerows or shrubs. Breeding mostly in hedgerows, the bird's blue-green eggs were regarded as charms against witches' spells when strung out along the hob. They were especially good for keeping spirits from coming down the chimney.

The dunnock can have two or three clutches of four to six eggs in a season. Ancient references in literature tell us that the bird has been a popular host species for the Cuckoo. Shakespeare wrote in King Lear (1606) of how, ‘The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long'. In Chaucer's poem, The Parlement of Foules, written in 1382, the cuckoo is chastised as 'thou mordrer of the heysugge on the braunche that broghte thee forth!'

Heysugge, meaning ‘flutterer in the hedges', is Old English for hedge sparrow, so we know that the dunnock has been a cuckoo host for over 600 years.

Although nesting for the bird doesn't begin until April, like many other birds, the humble dunnock is seeking out suitable territory to defend as spring edges ever closer.

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