‘”Unobtrusive, quiet and retiring, without being shy, humble and homely in its deportment and habits, sober and unpretending in its dress, while still neat and graceful, the Dunnock exhibits a pattern which many of a higher grade might imitate,with advantage to themselves and benefit to others through an improved example.’ With these carefully chosen words, the Reverend F. O. Morris (1856) encouraged his parishioners to emulate the humble life of the Dunnock Prunella modularis. His recommendation turns out to be unfortunate. We now know that the Dunnock belies its dull appearance, having extraordinary sexual behaviour and an extremely variable mating system. The result of the Reverend Morris’s advice would have made the relationships on current television soap operas appear dull by comparison.”
Professor Nick Davies FRS started his 1987 paper with a bang – what a great introduction. I think I can honestly say that writing about sigmatropic rearrangements or ring-closing metathesis reactions (as I did) provided no opportunities of this kind and I suspect that even had I been able to write one, reviewers would have done away with an opening paragraph of this level of impact out of sheer jealousy. Alas. The rest of the Morris (F. O. Morris, A History of British Birds, London, 1856, 4, 8-13.) is quite engaging; I was able to download the relevant volume from archive.org.
Here is the line drawing from the Morris. I couldn’t do any better myself but it certainly has its limitations.
Davies studied a colour-ringed population of Dunnocks in the Cambridge Botanic Garden. It must have been demanding work keeping track of these tiny birds as they foraged on the ground and disappeared into the undergrowth. The diagram summarises the key features of the “extremely variable mating system” from the paper.
Davies recorded and quantified instances of all four arrangements, and discussed the advantages and disadvantages accruing to the two sexes.
Dunnocks are familiar in urban and suburban environments. A pair were regulars in my mother’s garden, in and out of an old rose on the fence, and sweeping the space of lawn and herbaceous border beneath a bird feeder. In Glasgow, I see them way below me on the ground in the back close quite often. I see them hopping under cars in the local streets foraging for the tiny things they eat – Dunnocks specialise in prey items so small that other species see their pursuit as unprofitable. The individual I photographed by Maryhill Locks is clearly overfaced by the enormous potential meal before it.
Davies stresses their sedentary nature which means that they don’t range far; the individuals I see regularly will be within metres of their usual pitches. There is a house near to Cardross marked as Murrays on the OS map; without wishing to be unkind, you might decribe it as a project house. I saw the wing-flicking courtship behaviour for the first time on the rustic driveway to the house.
At first, I thought that the bird was injured and I regretted the photograph. I’m glad I was wrong. The bird hopped up onto a rock and started calling surprisingly loudly.
There always seem to be Dunnocks at Murrays, and many perches for them there. On our last visit, the landside was frozen really hard and the Dunnocks and Robins were foraging on the shore which had thawed a bit in winter sunlight, presumably releasing some tiny creatures for the foragers. The better images came from the perchers. Though the overall appearance of the birds doesn’t exactly set the pulse racing, the better images reveal a glorious range of textures.
Davies spoke about his work on The Life Scientific on Radio 4. He retained his interest in Dunnocks, watching a smaller population in the garden of his Cambridge house closely. In 2021, he published a short coda to his earlier work entitled “Male Dunnock kills the other male in a mating trio” as a Note in British Birds. He describes an almost cartoonish level of violence, reminiscent of the Joe Pesci characters in Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas and Casino films and perhaps surprising in a small bird.
I will continue to watch Dunnocks, enjoy their precise quartering of their territories, and worry about them going under cars.
The last word goes to poet Tony Lopez (A Handbook of British Birds, Pig Press, Durham, 1982):
If its slumbers are disturbed, the Dunnock wakes with a snatch of melody. I have heard it sing when startled by the light of a passing cycle-lamp.
As well you might in Cambridge, where I was given my copy of the Handbook.