Kingston Village

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Part 11 - The Dunnock and the Greenfinch

Dunnock - Prunella modularis

Even in the bird world there is a top of the pops and the dunnock moved into the top five most frequently seen garden birds in 2005, according to observations made by those members of the British Trust for Ornithology who contribute their findings to Garden BirdWatch, a long running “citizen science” research programme. This means that most gardens in Kingston will have a resident or regularly visiting dunnock; and yet, the bird is probably the least well-known even of the top twenty in the garden, thanks to its unobtrusive colours (the “dun” part of the name is a reference to its grey-brown plumage) and ground-feeding habit. In the spring, though, dunnocks may be seen out in the open on song posts, producing their brief and rather scratchy warble.

Dunnocks have a host of local names, most of them little used these days. Many, like “blue tom”, “blue jig” and “blue sparrow” probably refer to the colour of the birds’ eggs. Others, like “blind dunnock” and “foolish sparrow” are allusions not just to the bird being one of those unfortunate species parasitised by the cuckoo but to the fact that cuckoo eggs laid in the nests of dunnocks do not resemble those of the victim. This may suggest that cuckoos have only relatively recently (in evolutionary terms) begun to prey on dunnocks. The most frequently used name for the dunnock is hedgesparrow (sometimes written as two separate words) although the bird is unrelated to the sparrow family and is mainly insectivorous rather than seed-eating, as its thin bill indicates. Dunnocks are far more likely to be seen under bird tables than on them. The dunnock’s sexual behaviour is far more scandalous than anything practised behind the twitching suburban curtains in Wisteria Lane! There are monogamous pairs but also instances of polygeny (one male with two or more females) polyandry (a female with more than one male) and even polygynandry (two or three males sharing several females). They may look dull but dunnocks are full of surprises!

Greenfinch – Chloris chloris

A photo of a Male Greenfinch taken in April 2008 by Rhys Haden

I have a special affection for the greenfinch, as this is the species that got me hooked on birds for life. I had just moved into a ground floor flat in North London where I had the first garden that I could call my own. After I’d hung up a peanut bag, I was amazed to see several handsome bright green and yellow birds descend on it. I was even more surprised to discover from my newly-purchased field guide that these birds – greenfinches – were among the commonest in Britain: and yet, I had never consciously seen them before. How could I have been so unobservant, I wondered, and what else was I missing? Lots – as I’m still finding out, 35 years later.

There can be few bird tables or bird feeders anywhere in the country that don’t have greenfinches as regular visitors. Greenfinches also nest in gardens, in hedges or thick shrubs or trees including the otherwise notorious Leylandii. Their twittering song and long rather nasal call-note – a drawn out “wheeeeeze” can be heard all over Kingston at the moment and if they are not already nesting in your garden or that of a neighbour, they probably soon will be. After breeding, they flock together with other closely-related species in search of seeds, which is why they can often be seen on waste ground in urban areas.

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