Do Dunnocks Use Nestboxes

A lot is known about how garden birds such as robins and sparrows respond to bird nestboxes in gardens and parks, but do dunnocks use nestboxes too? Read on to find out whether you should provide dunnocks in your garden with a nestbox, and what to do if you find a baby away from its nest.

Due to the fact that dunnocks like to sleep and nest close to the ground, they don’t often use nestboxes. They may, however, use an open fronted hedge sparrow nest box if it is not too high. Female dunnocks build their nest out of twigs and moss mainly, and may line the nest with moss and hair.

A collection of dunnock eggs will be incubated for up to two weeks before hatching into nestlings. These nestlings will stay in the nest for a further 11 days, being cared for by one or more adult dunnocks while they are still heavily dependent on help. Once they are strong enough and big enough, the fledgling dunnocks will fly the hedge sparrow nest box or nest over a period of days or weeks, gradually learning how to fly. During this time, they will stay close to their parents, and may still rely on them for food from time to time.

Dunnocks can be most easily identified by their blue-grey head markings and pointed beak, ideal for feeding on invertebrates on the ground. They are similar in size to robins and sparrows, and generally grow up to 14cm in length, with a wingspan of 17cm – 21cm.

The scientific name for a dunnock is prunella modularis, and they are commonly also referred to as hedge accentors, hedge sparrows or hedge warblers. They belong to a family of birds called ‘accentors’, although they are commonly mistaken for sparrows.

Dunnocks commonly shy away from interaction with humans, and keep themselves to themselves. They are known for being polyandrous, which is unusual for garden birds, and they tend to live in gardens, woodland, parks and farmland across the UK.

Dunnocks sleep in any green areas, favouring shrubs and hedges as their main place to sleep. Parks, gardens, deciduous woodland and farmland are all common places to find dunnocks sleeping. They prefer to be low to the ground, as their diet is mainly made up of invertebrates found on the ground and they like to be close by.

Dunnocks will breed from their first spring since reaching adulthood, approximately one year after they hatch. Unlike many other garden birds such as robins and sparrows, dunnocks are polyandrous, meaning that they don’t mate with just one partner per breeding season, and they certainly don’t mate for life!

In particular, female dunnocks will likely have multiple male partners during one spring-summer period, resulting in their brood having a number of different fathers. This increases her likelihood of having help to raise her brood, as more often than not there will be at least one male present to help feed the dunnock nestlings. 

Male dunnocks can be full or part-time helpers to female dunnocks in raising their young, and sometimes multiple males will look after one brood. Typically, one of the males will be the alpha male, although this is only the case when there is also a female looking after the brood.

Should I Return A Baby Dunnock To Its Nest?

  1. Does The Dunnock Have Feathers? If the dunnock has most of its adult feathers, then it is likely a fledgling dunnock. This means it is in the process of leaving the nest on its own and so doesn’t need to be returned to the nest. If you put fledgling dunnocks back in their nests or nestboxes, they will likely hop out again in no time! If the dunnock is smaller and does not yet have adult feathers, then it is likely a nestling dunnock. Nestlings will die shortly if they don’t have adults nearby to feed them. This means you will need to follow these steps to return the baby dunnock safely to its nest.
  2. Is The Dunnock In A Stable Condition? Dunnocks that are too sick to be re-nested will likely be rejected by the parents. This means that the best option for a nestling dunnock that is not moving much, is colder to the touch, or is not making much noise should likely be taken to a wildlife rescue centre instead. There are many branches of the RSPCA across the UK, most of which will be able to care for and rehabilitate a nestling safely. If the baby dunnock is warm, active and vocal, it has likely only been outside of its nest for a short period of time, and you can likely attempt to re-nest it yourself.
  3. Find The Hedge Sparrow Nest Box Or The Nest It Came From: The most successful way to re-nest a nestling is to return it to the nest it came from. Dunnock nests will be located near to the ground, not up in trees like some other garden birds. If the existing nest is still in place, carefully lower the nestling into the nest, making sure not to disturb the other nestlings. If the nest has been blown or has fallen from its original location, you can use it to make a replacement nest.
  4. Make A Replacement Nest: If the nest is not in its original position, or you can’t locate it, then it might be wise to make a new nest. Find a shallow, weather-proof container and place the existing nest inside it, if you have it. If not, cover the bottom of the container inside with twigs and moss to make a substitute nest. Place the dunnock nestling inside it, and then place the hedge sparrow nest box inside a nearby hedge, fairly low to the ground. Use string to secure the nest to a branch if need be.
  5. Monitor The Dunnock Nestling: It’s a good idea to check on the baby dunnock every two hours or so after you have re-nested it, to make sure its parents have located it and are returning to feed it. If not, the dunnock will not survive for very long. If you haven’t seen any adult birds around in more than a couple of hours, call a vet or animal rescue centre such as the RSPCA.

The population of dunnocks in the UK is currently in decline, due mainly to the loss of habitat. Changes in woodland management practices since the 1980s have meant that dunnocks have fewer places to nest and raise their young, and reduced cover from predators. Dunnocks rely on shady, dense vegetation, which is often eaten by grazing animals. They aren’t typically drawn to nestboxes, meaning that their choice of secure nesting places is limited.