The Dunnock is a rather dark, fairly shy and retiring garden bird which is very common throughout Europe. Its favoured habitat is anything which is vaguely dense and scrubby, from gorse bushes on coasts to bramble clumps in woods or a simple garden hedge.
Despite their somewhat drab plumage, Dunnocks are rather an endearing species. They have a lovely intimate courtship display and a sweet warbling song. The Dunnock will often be seen darting out of cover, creeping furtively over a lawn, before darting back into the hedge. Aside from the high-pitched, clear and very resonant “sissisisis” song, the slightly less impressive, but still strong, call note ‘seeh’ is usually heard well before a Dunnock appears. The Dunnock’s older name of ‘Hedge Sparrow’ reveals its liking for such habitats. This name is still used by many country folk today, although the bird is in no way related to the sparrows.
The adult shows a dull grey head and breast, with dark brown on the crown and on the ear-coverts, which can also show very faint white flecking. The mantle and wings are very warm brown, almost rufous, with quite bold blackish streaks. The wings may show a faint white wing bar. The rump is greyer and unstreaked, while the tail is dark brown. The flanks often show warmer russet tones, but also show strong dark streaks. The vent and undertail are off-white to buff. The thick bill is black, the eye dark brown and the legs and feet are dull pink.
Although superficially resembling a sparrow (hence the still popular name, Hedge Sparrow), the Dunnock is a more slender, less dumpy bird than the House Sparrow and has a thin bill, longish-looking tail and distinctive plumage.
During the late winter and early spring, the male Dunnock enters into a delightful display routine in order to woo an interested female. The male lands on a small branch, usually on top of a hedge, and, when near to a likely-looking female, begins to flick one wing, then the next, in turn for several minutes. Often one male can draw other suitors to an area, and the usually solitary Dunnock may attract a crowd of like-minded wingflickers!
Juveniles are duller than adults. The head is browner, and the upperparts lack the strong rufous tones, appearing plain brown with black streaks. The underparts show heavy black blotches on the breast extending to the flanks. The throat and undertail are whiter than the adults. The bill is silvery-grey.