Lazy little dun bird lives up to its old name

A dunnock.
A dunnock.

Here is a young shufflewing recently out of the nest. But do you recognise the name and the bird? Well, it’s an old Sussex name for the hedge sparrow. Nowadays birders refer to it only as dunnock. This youngster looks a little like a small thrush with its heavily speckled breast. The plain parents also live up to their name of dunnock, which means dun-coloured, or brownish all over.

In the same way, small brownish waders on the shoreline such as dunlin and other sandpipers used to be called, collectively, dun-birds. They would appear in the Portsmouth poulterer’s shops in winter in their thousands, being one of the staples of the shore gunners of our harbours.

My young shufflewing also lived up to its other name, just like its parents, by flicking its wings about and then stretching them out as it sun-bathed in the summer heat on the bird table. It is a lazy little thing, opening its yellow gape to have food stuffed into its gizzard rather than pick the morsels up off the bird table itself.

This is a late brood juvenile, not appearing out of the nest until the first week of August. The parents live in my garden all year round, safe inside the dense bramble bushes which I keep especially for them. But they will sometimes build their lovely mossy nest on the edge of the bushes, low down, where they can be seen by a crow or jay when I am not looking. So third broods of dunnocks often succeed when the predators no longer need protein from other birds’ eggs to make their own or feed their young.

It is, like other teenagers, also a bit lazy when eating, lying down comfortably on its stomach, to save weight on its legs. There is nothing wrong with it, it just gets tired.

I used to be like that when a teenager, even lying on the sofa to eat my cornflakes of a morning. All the other Sussex names show some degree of affection for this familiar, just as robins were robin-goodfellows to some countryfolk; a mischievous sportive sprite, or Puck. Hedge sparrows were also Betty, Mike, Pick or Pip, depending on which area of the country you were in. Everyone knew them, because everyone worked in the countryside. Ask most people today to give the bird a name, and you would draw blank looks.

My grandfather even more correctly named the bird as hedge accentor. That gives its family heritage, because it is in the accentor family, of which there are eleven other members, with only the alpine accentor near us.

In winter, there is some migration south in bad winters, dunnocks usually passing on out of this country by the first week of November. Even so, since 1981, they are beginning to be recorded much more commonly in the north in winter, with some birds even in the Shetlands. Mine have not moved more than twenty yards for three years. They’ve never had it so good here.