Dunnocks and sparrows are similar-looking, and it can be quite challenging to tell them apart if you don’t know what to look for. They are equally common garden birds, and you may see either a dunnock or sparrow feeding in your garden.
The Dunnock (Hedge Sparrow)
A dunnock is a small perching bird, found commonly throughout Europe and Russia. They are also found in New Zealand, having been introduced there by Europeans. They are part of the accentor family (not the sparrow family), a genus of bird that is known for originating in mountains in Europe and Asia.
The word ‘dunnock’ comes from the English ‘dun’ meaning dingy brown or dark-coloured. The family name ‘accentor’ comes from the Latin word meaning a person who sings with another. Dunnocks are also known as ‘hedge accentors’, ‘hedge sparrows’ or ‘hedge warblers’.
House & Tree Sparrows
The two most common types of sparrows are the house sparrow and the tree sparrow. These common types of sparrows are native to Europe and most of Asia, and live in both rural and urban areas. The word ‘sparrow’ is thought to come from the Old English ‘spearwa’.
So, how can we tell the difference between a dunnock hedge sparrow and the two most common types of sparrows, the house sparrow and the tree sparrow?
Dunnock or Sparrow? 7 Differences to Look Out For
The differences between dunnocks, house sparrows and tree sparrows are subtle.
Dunnock or sparrow? Firstly, dunnocks tend to be slightly smaller than house and tree sparrows. Dunnocks are typically 14cm in length, with a wingspan of between 19cm and 21cm. They generally weigh between 19g and 24g, and the males and females are very similar in size and appearance.
On the other hand, house sparrows are generally between 14cm and 15cm in length, with a wingspan of between 21cm and 26cm. They weigh slightly more than a dunnock hedge sparrow, ranging from 24g to 38g in weight.
Tree sparrows have an average length of 14cm, and an average wingspan of between 20cm and 22cm. They weigh between 19g and 25g.
In general, the beak of a house or tree sparrow tends to be thicker than a dunnock’s. Dunnock hedge sparrow beaks are usually thinner and pointier, although they are similar in colour. Sparrows’ heads are brown with grey crowns, whereas the head of a dunnock is more blue or grey in colour.
House sparrows have much thicker beaks, which are suited to breaking open seeds. Their heads are more brown than grey, and the males have a black neck. Tree sparrows have a very brown head, often with a black spot on their cheek. Male and female tree sparrows look very alike.
Another way to distinguish whether a bird is a dunnock or sparrow is their call.
The song of a dunnock hedge sparrow can be described as a loud, squeaky warble. The song has been likened to writing on a whiteboard with a creaky pen, and is a ‘peep’ noise. The dunnock call is mostly heard in the first six months of the calendar year.
The song of a house sparrow, in contrast, is a more basic ‘cheep’ noise. The noise is often repeated over and over again, and can be very loud. Tree sparrows make a less common ‘zee’ noise, rather than a ‘cheep’ sound.
House sparrows are the most confident and boisterous of these birds, and do not shy away from humans, often using bird-feeders as a food source. They often live in groups, and don’t migrate throughout the year. They never stray too far from shelter as they aren’t particularly confident at flying long distances.
Tree sparrows are not as confident as house sparrows, and as a result they are shyer around humans. They do, however, live in groups, and will be more confident in feeding from a bird-feeder when in their group.
Dunnocks are also not as boisterous as house sparrows, and they often dart about on the ground. Unlike sparrows, they don’t live in groups, and are generally only seen with other sparrows during spring and summer months when they are breeding. They prefer feeding on the ground, so aren’t often seen at hanging bird-feeders.
There are also differences in nesting that allow you to tell whether a bird is a dunnock or sparrow.
The dunnock hedge sparrow is known for being unfaithful to their partner when it comes to breeding. Female dunnocks will usually have a few male partners, to maximise their chances of being able to care for their nestlings. In many cases, male dunnocks will also have multiple partners.
Tree sparrows, on the other hand, are more likely to stay with the same partner during a single breeding season. As the name suggests, they often nest in trees, dense hedges or cliffs. Trees are great at alerting parent sparrows to predators, as the rustling leaves gives them away.
House sparrows are the most faithful, and tend to mate for life. As the name suggests, they prefer to nest in small crevices in buildings, but may also use hedges and even log piles in more rural settings.
Tree sparrows are found most commonly in rural towns and villages in England and the South of Scotland. In the UK, their population is in rapid decline. This is largely because of the increase in agriculture and the use of herbicides in these environments.
House sparrows live in both urban and rural areas, and are often seen relying somewhat on humans for food through bird-feeders and scraps. Despite this, house sparrow populations are also in rapid decline, because of the reduction in available food and nesting sites, and the increase in air pollution.
Dunnocks are content living in both urban and rural areas, even living in farmland and in woodland. The population of dunnocks in the UK is declining, but not at the same rate as sparrow populations. The most likely reason for the decline in dunnock hedge sparrow population is the reduced habitats available for them to live and breed in.
Difference in the diet of these birds will also give an indication of whether a bird is a dunnock or sparrow.
The dunnock hedge sparrow commonly feeds on insects, spiders and worms. Their thin beaks are ideal for eating these invertebrates, but are less suited to cracking open large seeds and fruit. As a result, they tend to feed on the ground.
House sparrows tend to feed on new leaves and seeds. Due to their confident nature and their inability to be phased by the presence of humans, they also often seek scraps of human food. They do also eat insects, especially when they have nestlings to feed too.
Tree sparrows eat grains, grasses, and weeds. They do eat at bird-feeders, but often only if they are in a group.
Summary of the Key Differences
|Dunnock (Hedge Sparrow)||Tree Sparrow||House Sparrow|
|Head colour||Blue-grey||Brown, black spot on cheek||Brown, grey crown|
|Beak||Small, pointed||Rounded blunt||Rounded blunt|
|Song||Squeaky ‘peep’||‘Zee’ sound||’Cheep’ sound|
|Behaviour||Timid, ground-dweller, live solo||Timid, live in groups||Boisterous, live in groups|
|Nesting||Multiple partners at once||One partner per breeding season||Mate for life|
|Habitat||Urban & rural areas||Rural areas||Urban & rural areas|
|Diet||Insects, spiders, worms||Grasses, weeds, grain||Leaves, seeds, insects, human scraps|
|Population||Decline||Rapid decline||Rapid decline|