DUNNOCK (Prunella modularis)


One of our favourite little brown jobbies, the dunnock can be found across the UK, in woods, moorland, gardens and parks alike. Except for the highest peaks in Scotland, you can find them almost anywhere. Though their appearance may have you assuming they are dull, dunnocks have an array of interesting behaviours in mating. Dunnocks are shy birds, who are more likely to fly away to shelter when disturbed.

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Alert Status:

Amber - 14% increase ↑

Estimated number of UK breeding

pairs: 2.5 million (updated 2016)

Listen to dunnock song:


Dubbed ‘little brown jobbies’ due to their various shades of brown, the dunnock is more often referred to as a ‘hedge sparrow’. Both adult sexes look alike, with heavily streaked back and cap with grey face, throat, and breast. They sport thin dark bills, and orange brown legs, with rich black streaks on their wings Juveniles are more unevenly streaked, with a grey and brown streaking on their underside, looking untidy.

Average Length: 13-14.5 cm

Average Lifespan: 2-5 Years

Average Wingspan: 19-21 cm

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Dunnock diet

Dunnocks can be found foraging on the ground, hopping about close to bushes due to their shy nature. They eat mainly insects and seeds, with a preference for beetles. Dunnock nestlings are fed mostly beetles and small flies, with the occasional spider for good measure!

How to feed: Ground feeders
What to feed: Seed mix and sunflower hearts

Dunnock breeding and nesting information

Dunnocks are unusual, in that they display a variety of different mating systems. They have been known to exhibit polygamy, with some males having multiple mates, and some females having multiple males. Many males perform ‘mate guarding’ behaviours, to prevent other males from copulating with females to ensure paternity of the chicks. Nests are cup shaped and constructed from moss, stems, leaves, and roots, lined by hair, feathers and moss. Breeding season for dunnocks takes place often between April-July, where they lay 2-3 broods annually, with 4-5 eggs in each clutch. The eggs are incubated by the female for approximately 2 weeks, followed by a further 2 weeks of feeding by males and females before the chicks can fledge.

Threats to dunnocks

Dunnocks are amber listed on the birds of conservation concern and have been steadily declining for many years. Though the causes of decline are not known, it is thought to be due to changes in agriculture and the loss of hedgerows in some parts of the country. The move from over-winter stubbles has left many birds with a lack of food for the winter months, causing declines in farmland bird species. Furthermore, predation may be an issue as a European ringing study has found that dunnocks have some of the highest rates of predation by domestic cats, with over 36% of dunnocks ringed predated by cats.

How you can help

  • Supplementary feeding on ground feeders or by placing food under shrubs and bushes.  
  • Use our win-win solutions to deter cat hunting.
  • Provide plenty of shelter in the form of dense bushes and trees for the dunnock to retreat to.

Fascinating Fact

Dunnocks, known as ‘heysugge’ in Old English, or ‘hedge sparrow’ are a popular host species for cuckoo eggs. They have been parasitised by cuckoos for at least the least 600 years, as Chaucer mentions in his poem “The Parlement of Foules”.
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BirdLife International (2022) Species factsheet: Prunella modularis. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 19/06/2022.  

Bishton, G. (1985) The diet of nestling Dunnocks Prunella modularis. Bird Study. 32(2): 113-115. https://doi.org/10.1080/00063658509476865

Bishton, G. (1986), The diet and foraging behaviour of the Dunnock Prunella modularis in a hedgerow habitat. Ibis, 128: 526-539. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1474-919X.1986.tb02704.x

Davies, N.B. (1985) Cooperation and conflict among dunnocks, Prunella modularis, in a variable mating system. Animal Behaviour. 33(2): 628-648.

Davies, N. B., M. De L. Brooke. (1989). An Experimental Study of Co-Evolution between the Cuckoo, Cuculus canorus, and its Hosts. II. Host Egg Markings, Chick Discrimination and General Discussion. Journal of Animal Ecology. 58(1): 225–236. https://doi.org/10.2307/4996

Davies, N.B., Hatchwell, B.J., Robson, T., Burke, T. (1992) Paternity and parental effort in dunnocks Prunella modularis: how good are male chick-feeding rules? Animal Behaviour. 43(5): 729-745.

Dickinson, A.M., Locke, E., Gray, L.A., Bennett, S.L., Biddle, L.E., Goodman, A.M., Deeming, D.C. (2021) Composition of nests constructed by species in the Motacillidae, Sylviidae and Prunellidae. Avian biology research. 15(1): https://doi.org/10.1177/17581559211066083  

Pavisse, R., Vangeluwe, D. (2019) Domestic Cat Predation on Garden Birds: An Analysis from European Ringing Programmes. Ardea. 107(1):103

Robinson, R.A. (2005) BirdFacts: profiles of birds occurring in Britain & Ireland. BTO, Thetford (http://www.bto.org/birdfacts, accessed on 28 March 2022)  

Siriwardena, G.M., Stevens, D.K., Anderson, G.Q.A., Vickery, J.A., Calbrade, N.A., Dodd, S. (2007) The effect of supplementary winter seed food on breeding populations of farmland birds: evidence from two large-scale experiments. Journal of Applied Ecology 44: 920–932.

Siriwardena, G.M., Calbrade, N.A., Vickery, J.A. (2008) Farmland birds and late-winter food: does seed supply fail to meet demand? Ibis 150: 585–595.

Stanbury, A.J., Eaton, M.A., Aebischer, N.J., Balmer, D., Brown, A.F., Douse, A., Lindley, P., McCulloch, N., Noble, D.G., Win, I. (2021) The status of our bird populations: the fifth Birds of Conservation Concern in the United Kingdom, Channel Islands and Isle of Man and second IUCN Red List assessment of extinction risk for Great Britain. British Birds. 114

Woodward, I., Aebischer, N., Burnell,D., Eaton, M., Frost, T., Hall, C., Stroud, D. & Noble, D. (2020) Population estimates of birds in Great Britain and the United Kingdom. British Birds. 113: 69–104.

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