Leaning over the rails around the veranda this morning, overlooking the garden and the river flats, there seems, at first, to be very little going on, very little to observe. However, the sun is warm and the intensity of the red flowers of the bottlebrush is sufficient in itself to make the morning enjoyable.
Then I notice in the distance a large flock of birds flitting over the saved winter pasture and see that it is a charm of goldfinches. There has been a very good crop of dandelions this winter, I know, and I can see they are busy stripping off the downy seed heads.
Kawau, the great black shag, flies silent and true up the river. They are birds I have a great feeling for and have recently discovered where they roost along the river. Putangitangi, the paradise ducks, fly in, their shrieking disturbing my thoughts. There are just three of them, two ducks and a drake I note. A solitary white-faced heron I had overlooked squawks at their approach and takes off. It too, it seems, has lost a mate.
The magpies and the spur winged plovers have thankfully found somewhere else to spend the morning but a gang of mynas is busy commandeering the fallen avocados. There too is Piwakawaka, the fantail, flitting high in the trees. The tiny midges they feed on during the winter can be clearly seen dancing against the light.
They are all there afterall, the blackbirds and the thrushes, although a different lot after the harsh drought of the summer. The swallows are there, Tauhou, the white-eye, and of course the sparrows, and each has a story to tell if one would just take the time to listen.
But it is the little nondescript dunnock I am really looking for this morning, listening for its high-pitched insistent metallic call. They may have already left the garden for they do not nest here, the garden not being considered a safe enough place to rear their young, I suppose.
The dunnock is often called the hedge sparrow, mistakenly as it turns out for it is not a sparrow at all although they do look a bit alike. They belong to quite different families, dunnocks are accentors and sparrows are weavers.
They are small, at first sight rather drab birds, but having observed them much of late, I find them very attractive with their own special character. The dunnock is quiet in colour and in manner, unobtrusive rather than shy and will quietly scout about the driveway or under the bushes while I observe it, taking quick peeks at me, just to see what I am about.
Their bodies are slate grey, streaked with a reddish brown, the deep brown upper mantle streaked black with a slate grey throat and chest and paler lightly striped under parts. They have a fine pointed black bill, unlike the sparrow, for catching insects. They sing in a neat precise manner, as if repeating something learnt by heart.
The books tell me that their natural breeding range is Europe and western Asia and that several hundred birds were introduced here in New Zealand by the Acclimatisation Societies and private individuals between the 1860 and 1880s.
The Dunnock exhibits mating diversity comparable to that of humans: there are monogamous pairs, polyandrous females with their mates, polygynous males with their mates, and polygynandrous groups of males and females, each of whom has multiple mates. Polyandry is rare in birds, with only about 2% of species showing such a mating system; the majority are monogamous, where one male and one female breed together.
The hen, apparently with some help from the cock builds the nest which is well concealed in thick undergrowth or a hedge, normally very close to the ground. It is a neat bowl of twigs, grass and moss lined with hair, feathers and moss.
The diet is mainly small invertebrates, beetles, spiders, flies, aphids, ants and worms. Some small fruits and seeds are also eaten. Most food is taken from the ground, usually not far away from cover.
In spite of being such nondescript birds, they are birds that have gained a lot of attention by people who matter. The famous eighteenth century naturalist, Gilbert White of Selbourne, thought them fine birds but called them hedge sparrows. He observed that they have a remarkable flirt with their wings in breeding time and as soon as frosty mornings come they make a very plaintive piping noise.
Emily Bronte knew the bird by the name dunnock and also knew that it is frequently a foster–parent of a cuckoo. In Wuthering Heights Ellen Dean is asked what she knows of the history of Heathcliff. She replies, “It’s a cuckoo’s, sir... and Hareton has been caste out like an unfledged dunnock”.
The cuckoos in Europe do indeed make shameless use of them but if our cuckoos do the same to them here, there seems to be no record.
— Waiotahi Valley, Eastern Bay of Plenty, 1998.
Other common names: —
Hedge sparrow, shuffle-wing, hedge-warbler, winter-fauvette, smoky, titlene, blue jig, cuddy, Accentor modularis.
14 cm., 21 g., rather like a female house sparrow but with slim black bill.
Where to find: —
Found throughout the main islands and off shore islands, from sea level to alpine scrub, including suburban gardens and orchards.
`Ye! have the glotoun fild ynogh his paunche,
Than are we wel!' seyde the merlioun;
`Thou mordrer of the heysugge on the braunche
That broghte thee forth, thou rewthelees glotoun!
Live thou soleyn, wormes corrupcioun!
For no fors is of lakke of thy nature;
Go, lewed be thou, whyl the world may dure!'
— Geoffry Chaucer, Parliament of Fowles
Credit for the photograph: —
Illustration description: —
Gould, John, Birds of Europe, 1832-37.
Morris, Reverend F.O., A Natural History of the Nests and Eggs of British Birds, 1863.
Davies, N., 1992., Dunnock Behaviour and Social Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Heather, B., & Robertson, H., Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, 2000.
Oliver, W.R.B., New Zealand Birds, 1955.
Page date & version: —
Monday, 19 May, 2014; ver2009v1