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Out of the blue

Outdoor Living

HIDDEN JEWELS A dunnock’s nest with a clutch of eggs, tucked away in a bramble hedge near Westport. Pic: Ciara Moynihan

The surprisingly colourful life of the little brown dunnock

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

Suddenly, without proper warning, the countryside has sprung to life. It was that pair of jays that kicked things off, taking their noisy shrieking from one end of the woods to the other. Then the magpies were hard at work bringing sticks to the top of the thorn tree, and before I was even vaguely aware that life was stirring anew, why, a few milder moments set a pair of robins flirting about the lawn and borders. There were four, then a few days of ferocious fighting reduced them to a twosome.
At least, I assume they are a pair; they look identical to me but I imagine they know what’s what. Only one of them sings. That must be the male. The other seems to listen for a while, then flits away to the far side of the garden, feigning disinterest. That they are in love is evident. He feeds her (or does she feed him?) with dainty morsels which she, or he, accepts graciously, with quivering wings and a fluffing out of feathers.
We have another bird of similar size that deserves more credit, one with a trilogy of names, in the humble hedge sparrow, the hedge accentor, or dunnock. He has an Irish name too: Donnóg. Little Donnóg’s plumage, being composed of various shades of brown and grey, might not match that of most other garden birds, but his song outdoes the majority.
Nor has he the bold manner of blackbird or thrush, which take to the highest point to sing. No, our little dunnock appears almost embarrassed as he opens his bill to produce a song as sweet as any, with which to serenade his love, or loves.
He is furtive in his ways, creeping about the undergrowth until that strange passion takes him again. Out he flies, as far as the log pile, to deliver another burst of musical notes, and away he goes once more, looking over his shoulder apologetically, back under the bushes and out of sight.
Is there anything more beautiful than the mossy bowl of the dunnock’s nest? It isn’t the nest itself, although like those made by most birds it is art in itself. As humble a home as any, this occupies a lowly position, perhaps resting on intertwining briars in a bramble hedge or tucked away in the dark recess of a conifer tree, in the heavy shade of dense needle-leaves. But see what lies inside! Four, or maybe five of the most beautifully blue eggs in all creation, each one the size of a fingernail and no more.
They are more blue, I am sure, than anything I ever saw. Does the dunnock wonder at them as I do? More, each of them holds a little miracle. The stirring of life, and the makings of more small brown birds that will, given good fortune, be hopping about beneath the bird table, picking at the crumbs spilled by others more forthright than they.
That is yet future. We should use his proper name; he is a hedge accentor, the only member of the accentor family to inhabit lowland areas and the only accentor to occur in Ireland.
The male has yet to find his mate, or mates. While most of our songbirds form pairs, with one male bonding together with a single female, this is not the case with the hedge accentor. We think him demure, shy and retiring? He might look that way, but there is more to him than meets the eye.
If there should be more male accentors than female, well, the females become polyandronous and make themselves available. And if females should outnumber males, one polygynous male might have offspring in several nests simultaneously.
They are, it seems, just happy for the moment.
Scientists with too much time on their hands observed the breeding behaviour of these birds and found that a male accentor might mate up to a hundred times in one day. Picking at crumbs and short songs aside, this is one busy bird.
If equal numbers of both sexes are present the birds tend toward monogamy. Rather like the robins, who I hope will find the upturned tin I placed in the bamboo to their liking, and make their home within.