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The Dunnock And Its Odd Mating Behaviour

Updated on February 01, 2013

The Dunnock

The dunnock was once known as the hedge sparrow, but its not a sparrow at all. Instead it belongs to a family of birds known as accentors.
The dunnock was once known as the hedge sparrow, but its not a sparrow at all. Instead it belongs to a family of birds known as accentors. | Source

The Dunnock Singing

The Dunnock's Odd Mating Behaviour

More Than Just A Brown Bird

It wasn’t long ago that the dunnock or ‘hedge sparrow’ was considered to be a rather uninteresting small brown bird. But since the 1980s, when it was first studied in detail, its exploits have become a red hot topic of conversation across garden fences, and attracted more smutty headlines than those of a bed hopping soap star. The dunnock, you see, hides a distinctly lively lifestyle behind its veneer of ordinariness and homeliness. It’s all to do with sex, of course. What else could it possibly be?

Things start to subvert right from the earliest days of spring. The females, not the males as expected, start to mark out borders and skirmish over territories in an unusual demonstration of Girl Power. The winners sit defiantly in their territories and invite the males outside to move in with them. Not surprisingly, the invitees oblige with delirious enthusiasm, and fight amongst themselves for this unexpected privilege.

Now sometimes, just sometimes, the latter dispute is a simple one, and a single male dunnock wins the battle to move in with a single female. If so, they share the territory completely and the male takes over its defence. They become a monogamous pair and go about the breeding season without interruption from outside. Roughly, about a third of dunnock unions turn out this way.

But more frequently, there is a two pronged problem. In the average dunnock population there are fewer females than males and, logically enough, with a reduced density of population, the females have relatively large territories. Unfortunately the males, with a much higher population density, have more pressure on their borders and cannot normally defend as much area as the females. So, although a certain male might take over the defence of part of a female’s patch, he normally finds himself unable to defend all of it. To solve the problem he reluctantly allows another male in to keep the baying hordes outside.

It’s hardly an ideal arrangement. Two males are, metaphorically speaking, flat-sharing with the same female. They defend the territory as a team, using the same boundaries, but they both view the female through the same primeval steamed up lens of intense desire. They become bitter love rivals.

This dunnock was photographed in March on the Isle of Wight. By this time, its very odd mating season has been underway for over a month.
This dunnock was photographed in March on the Isle of Wight. By this time, its very odd mating season has been underway for over a month. | Source

Alpha And Beta Males

Their arrangement leads to an immense power struggle, resolving eventually into a dominance relationship between the two of them, a kind of personal pecking order, with the slightly stronger and fitter bird coming out on top. (On the rare occasions that male birds match each other with almost total equality, they often fight to the death instead.) The dominant bird, the alpha male, holds a certain sway over his subordinate, the beta male, in regard to access to the female. Having won his rights, he tries to monopolise the female’s company and keeps her as his exclusive sexual partner.

But it rarely works out as the alpha male intends, not least because of the unexpected motivations of his female. The female seems reluctant to be monopolised, and actually goes out of her way to encourage the beta male to go behind his master’s back and, shall we say, meet her behind the bike sheds. She actively seeks sexual relations with both birds, even as both males are firmly in competition against each other. The garden lawn is the floor, then, for a curious dance in which a female dashes back and forth between her suitors, one relationship open and freely acknowledged, the other enigmatic and merely suspected.

Why should she do this? The motivations of the males are clear enough, each bird wishing to promote its paternity by keeping the female’s attentions to itself. But why should the female be so solicitous to both admirers? The reason is surprisingly straightforward; in return for copulation, each male effectively signs a contract stating that he will help with feeding the young. In a situation where food might be difficult to find, the help of an extra shopper could be a significant boost to a female’s chicks’ chances of survival.

The dunnock's name comes from the ancient British word 'dunnakos' meaning 'little brown one.'
The dunnock's name comes from the ancient British word 'dunnakos' meaning 'little brown one.' | Source

Enter The Gammas

So here is a pertinent but explosive question; if two, why not three? Could they? Yes they could. Some dunnock territories contain three males, alpha, beta and gamma, all competing for a single female’s affections. Such chicks are mightily well fed, and the female could almost go part time but for the males it means that they are condemned to a stressful, and perhaps disappointing breeding season.

Sometimes, though the dance follows a different step. From time to time, ‘alpha-plus’ males arise in a population, birds that can indeed monopolise a female’s territory and not just one, but two. Perhaps these super males result in years when the female population density is greater than usual and these hold consequently smaller territories; or perhaps some males are just born to be superior. Whatever their origin, these birds find the defence of a single female’s territory so easy that they have a go at defending two, and if they succeed they monopolise both females. That’s a great arrangement for them, but it naturally reduces the help that each female can expect in the task of looking after the young. Although that would appear to give the females a more difficult time, at least they have the compensation of knowing that their young will come from strong, vigorous stock. Forget the help; feel the genes.

But not all potential ‘alpha-plus’ males are quite as superior as they might seem at first. At the beginning they can exclude all other males from two territories, but over the weeks their stranglehold begins to loosen, and they are eventually forced to share the defence of the two territories with a second or even third male. The arrangement is the same as in the flat share described above, with each of the males involved in a dominance relationship; an alpha, beta and gamma male. The only difference is that there are now two females involved, and things begin to get complicated. Both females attempt to mate with each male, but at the same the alpha male will try to prevent it happening, and monopolise both females for himself. But he is now acting against the wishes of not only the beta male and the possible gamma male, but also both females! So he rarely succeeds. Four or five in a flat allows for plenty of playing around.

Finally, in rare cases two males might find that joining forces to defend the territories of two females is so easy that they might as well try defending three, or even four adjacent female territories. If this happens, each female can be fairly guaranteed two helpers, and the males can bicker between themselves as to who mates with whom.

What is so remarkable about dunnocks is not that they frequently have multiple partners- lots of birds do that. It’s because all of their sexual liaisons are formalised, with both sexes having a role, rather than being quick flings outside an essentially monogamous relationship. These are not extra pair copulations; they are copulations with extra mates.

When all of this was discovered, the scientists struggled with the terminology. A combination of one male and one female has long been known as monogamy, and the combination of one sex with two or more members of the opposite sex as polygamy; polygyny when it was one male with multiple mates, and polyandry when it was one female with multiple mates. The dunnock, though, has forced a new word to find its way into the dictionary: polygynandry, the system in which, for example, a male can be polyandrous with females that are themselves polyandrous. There are not many garden birds, small brown or otherwise, whose escapades have been so singular as to require the invention of a new word and a new concept.

Moreover, with it being February, the dance is probably going on right now in back gardens across Britain. And there isn’t a thing you can do about it.

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    • aziza786 profile image

      Zia Uddin 4 years ago

      Very good and interesting hub, voted up. I didn't know the scientific terms alpha, beta and gamma were used to describe the males in their territories. Maybe they're powerful radioactive birds and no wonder they have multiple partners, lol. Thanks for sharing this hub, you did very well.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Haha! I hadn't thought of it that way Aziza, maybe they are radioactive, certainly would explain a lot. Thanks for popping by.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Thanks for the complicated rituals of the dunnock. They show a lot more "human tendencies" than they should. They are cute, though.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Yes you're right Deb, but I've also heard that the human tendency to stray from relationships is also natural. And that the idea of humans being monogamous animals is a total myth. I'll try to find a link for it. Thanks for popping by.

    • bac2basics profile image

      Anne 4 years ago from Spain

      Hi JK. Very informative and I have to say " funny" hub, I loved your style of writing here. I have seen Dunnocks in the UK and also here in Spain and thanks to the video can now identify their song, shame about all the car noise, I think you should come out and make your own vid here in the mountains, nothing else to hear but birds singing at times, I know a very nice villa for rental, mine :)

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      That wouldn't be a bad idea actually, it's been a long time since I've been to Spain- always wanted to go back there. I would try making a video in my own back garden but I'd have the same noise pollution problem. Thanks for popping by.

    • bac2basics profile image

      Anne 4 years ago from Spain

      Hi JK. Just sighted 2 Eagles and a Kestral hunting for food over my mountains, they were stock still in the air which is incredible seeing as how it´s blowing and absolute gale here at the moment. Have a great weekend :)

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Wow!! How lucky are you. You have a great weekend too. :)

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 4 years ago from SW England

      Fascinating! I love this amusing, interesting explantion of the dunnock's behaviour. Long live girl power, I say! Thanks for another great read. Up, interesting and funny. Ann

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you Ann, nice to see you again.

    • KrisL profile image

      KrisL 4 years ago from S. Florida

      Priceless! The dunnock has a "romantic" life unlike any other I've heard of outside of human outliers in the most tolorant societies.

      Shared with my followers, and tweeted.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much KrisL. Here in England, the dunnock dance has been underway for quite a while. They usually start singing in February. Strange to think that the majority of people have no idea that this avian soap opera is playing out right before their eyes.

    • Angelo52 profile image

      Angelo52 4 years ago from Central Florida

      Well written article and what an interesting avian. Thanks for sharing the story of these Dunnock birds. Sharing.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much Angelo.

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