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The demise of the dunnock

March 14, 2012



I hate giving up. I hate having to let a thing go once I’ve set my mind on it. Last year, dunnocks got left behind. I began my fieldwork on the 24th February. I had eight species to record, twenty individuals of each species. That’s 160 birds. By late May, I had recorded over 200, but not all of them were usable. Individual birds would stop singing in the middle of the recording period. They would switch song post. They would move around, sometimes to such an extent that they were confusable with their neighbours or virtually inaudible, at least to the microphone. Dunnocks did all of the above, and were shy to approach. They had a sixth sense of my interest in them and they didn’t like it. I put it down to them being low-down foragers. They like the undergrowth – hedges, brambles, all of which generally put them at waist-level or below. When I approached them, I must have loomed. I took to turning my back on them, pointing the microphone over my shoulder or under my armpit. It fooled a few of them but not for long. Their nervous flitting from bush to bush, perch to perch, betrayed my intention, my orientation, towards them. They would fall silent. And they had far more patience than I had. With seven other species to record, I was always in a hurry. Tempted by other singers, other species, nearby, I usually moved on quite quickly.


Also, dunnocks are erratic singers. They sing in short bursts with long gaps. Last year, I got four of them, out of a total of eight attempts. This year, I’ve got three out of seven, and that’s only by devoting hours to the attempt. They are taking too much time. I have too many other things to do. I am giving them up.


I remind myself that they’re not essential. I have seven other species, all belonging to different avian families, which is what I need for my phylogenetic study. This year, I need species within the same genus as some of last year’s for direct comparison. That’s blackbirds to compare with song thrushes; and chiff chaffs to compare with willow warblers. Any other species is a bonus, but not an absolute requirement. Meantime, I’m still embroiled in analysis; I’m working on my talk; I’m getting grapping with stats; I’m internally debating R versus SPSS (don’t ask now; more anon); I have a conference to apply to; I have to get to grips with the phylogenetic relationships of those species I have recorded successfully, in terms of a decent sample size. I’ve only 18 months of this PhD left, and I have to switch my brain from practical mode into theory. Dunnocks are a distraction. They are a puzzle, a heartache; infuriating, thrilling little birds.


Part of the reason I’m attached to them is their very difficulty. I’m always up for a challenge, for taking the hardest, most difficult road. Part of it is that long long ago, when I was eleven years old, we had to write a personal history for school. It was a large scrapbook, that also had a section for our hopes and dreams. One of my aspirations was to become an ornithologist, and to study the dunnock. Somewhere in my reading, I think it was David Lack’s The Life of the Robin, I had picked up that dunnocks, or hedge sparrow, or more accurately, hedge accentors as I no doubt self-importantly announced, required explication. I took that as personal invitation. Never mind now, that Nick Davies has long beaten me to it. I can still find virtually nothing in the literature about dunnock song structure. That field is still open to me. But I’m closing the gate, at least for now.


I console myself, that I could still get one or two more this spring. And there’s still next year, when if I’ve enough of my other work done, they could get their final hurrah. But I have to focus, I have to balance what one more species at the family level would give me, versus my two priorities at the genus level; and all the other work that I simply must give more time to.


The maddening thing is that I have one singing sporadically just outside my flat. When I hear him, I mutter: tempter! I know the moment I set up the equipment, he’ll have stopped, only resuming when I’ve gone away.


Some dreams you just don’t get to fulfil.


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