Dunnocks - A Sparrow for Everyone.

By Matt Pickering


A once common sight on the show bench and the only 'Schedule 3' listed small softbill, the Dunnock (Prunella modularis) has become a rarer sight at shows in recent years with breeders keeping alternative small softbills instead. British bird breeder, Matt Pickering, is looking to buck this trend and re-establish this charming bird as a regular in peoples collections.


Having kept Dunnocks (also called Hedge Accentor or Hedge Sparrow) for some years they have remained a main stay in my flights when other species have come and gone. Their active nature and soft springtime song makes them a real favourite. They are a relatively straight-forward species to keep and breed, as well as making good show exhibits.


The main stumbling block to keeping these birds is sexing them. The cockbird generally has a bluer colouring to the hen and has a lesser build. This does making sexing them difficult however and DNA sexing is always recommended to be sure.


Over the years I’ve had success breeding these delightful characters in various situations from mixed hardbill & softbill flights to large indoor cages. My greatest success however, has come when they are housed alone in their own aviary. They do not require a huge space and are more than happy with a 6’ x 3’ aviary. They do, however, appreciate some ground cover as they are secretive birds during the breeding season. I plant low growing conifers and shrubs in my aviaries where they spend most of their time.


Whilst they will normally be happy to over-winter in pairs, I personally split my pairs, as I do with all my softbills, so that I can choose my pairings in spring rather than them bonding with other birds. Through the winter months they are fed on a basic fine softbill mix to which I add 1/3 chickcrumbs. They are also offered a couple of mealworms per bird, per day to provide variety and will even take a small volume of british finch or canary seed mix as well.


When the breeding season approaches the cockbirds will fill the garden with their beautiful song as if telling you that they are ready to pair. At this time I, normally early April, I build an artificial hedge at one end of the aviary and offer wicker nest baskets at varying heights for nesting. Being very adaptable, they will nest anywhere between 1’ and 6’ from the ground and readily take to baskets, although other breeders have also had success with open front nest boxes.


The nests are very tidy and built from moss and fine grass, lined with animal hair (horse, dog and sheep’s wool, all cut into small lengths to avoid binding around the birds feet). Within this the hen will lay 4-6 bright blue eggs, which are incubated for about 14 days. Whilst sitting livefood should be offered so that the parent birds are used to what is available prior to the chicks hatching. When hatched, unlimited volumes of livefood should be offered. I provide some commercially available livefood in the form of min-mealworms which are placed in a deep side dish, together with small crickets which are particularly high in protein. These are simply released into the aviary for the birds to forage for. This ensures a continued supply throughout the day as the birds find the insects hiding in the plants and hedging provided. During the first few days after hatching I also offer a large variety of wild insects, collected using an old net, dragged through long grass. The variety of bugs, caterpillars, aphids, spiders and flies this provides is amazing and helps the chicks early development immensely. Whilst this variety should provide all their nutritional requirements, it is worth dusting the livefood with a calcium powder as the young can be susceptible to rickets.


The young can be rung at 6 days old with a size ‘E’ closed ring. I haven’t yet experienced issues with Dunnocks ejecting chicks from the nest after ringing so I don’t worry about covering the rings with plasters or rubber piping as some other breeders may. I do, however, ring the birds just before dusk so that the rings are less visible when the hen returns to them. Once settled for the night the chicks tend to tuck their legs beneath them, hiding the rings from sight. In the event that chicks are ejected, they can be easily hand reared with cropped mealworms and soaked puppy food.


The young fledge at approximately 14-16 days old and will again spend much of their first few days out of the nest hiding in low cover. Care must be taken when entering the aviary as they are well camouflaged. The young may be left with the parents until the next clutch is due to hatch. Dunnocks will have 2 or 3 clutches although in my experience they appear to lose interest a little after the second clutch.


I bring the weaned young inside to moult and settle them down before the showing season commences. At this time I continue to feed mini-mealworms as well as a softbill mix until they are fully moulted at which time they are placed on the winter diet described earlier.


Dunnocks show themselves very well in exhibition and are ideal for anyone starting out with softbills when it comes to the show scene. Giving you the opportunity to decorate your show cages to highlight your breeding achievement.


Matt is coordinating a Dunnock breeding programme on the ‘British Birds In Aviculture’ forum (www.BBIA.co.uk) during the 2013 breeding season. Anyone wishing to get involved can do so by registering on the site.