There's nothing dull about dunnocks
The hedge sparrow will not break loose from the gravity of the hedge. Hedge is home: a four-dimensional forest that travels through a landscape beset by dangerous space, and provides for a kind of dwelling that supports a very particular society. This tiny passerine is also called a dunnock – literally, little brown bird – an anonymous, blended-in, could-be-anything.
This one is prospecting for beetles, spiders and ants, as damp, mild, weather brings out early creatures. Its pencil-sharp beak shows that it is not adapted to seeds but it will take them when there’s nothing else. Drab and grey-headed is the usual description (as is mine), but there is a subtle vibrancy to its oak-polish brown flecked with darker encryptions, and its head, the colour of lichen on branches.
There is something surprisingly rapid about Prunella modularis; it’s like being in the presence of a little ticking bomb. Its movements are quick and edgy. Its song – when that gets going in a few weeks’ time – is somewhere between wren and robin, faster but less shrill and more codified, a rapid fire of so-called “sexy syllables” that last for one-tenth of a second, which, incidentally, is the time it takes for dunnocks to copulate.
These birds are quick. Perhaps that’s a consequence of their complicated sex lives: there’s polyandry, with females sharing several males, and polygyny, with males sharing a female, and between them all they work out a metropolis of territories in the hedge.
Tseep! The dunnock calls to maintain radio contact with its clan. It’s a call that can be heard in woods from here to the Caucasus – and, because the bird was taken there in the 19th century, in New Zealand forests, where dunnocks sing in the silence left by other birds that have been wiped out.
This one furtles around the hedgebank in the quiet before the storm: literally – one is brewing – and metaphorically, before the shenanigans of the breeding season begin. For now, it quivers and flicks, attached by an invisible fuse to the hedge and, as if full of fireworks, this hedge is a box of sparrows.