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Right outside my study window there is a big bank of azaleas. As I write I often find my eye drawn to a quick, flitting movement within the upper branches of the bushes. Giving in all too readily to the distraction I shift my focus and catch sight of one of my favourite small birds, the Dunnock. An assuming and often overlooked common garden bird. Its other name Hedge Sparrow says it all, a poor country relative of the House Sparrow, a brown non-entity. But if you get a close look you will find they have a lovely subtle bluey-grey shading to the head and shoulders. Most people won’t recognize their song which is often delivered from a fairly hidden place, it is not as liquid or as loud as the Blackcap but has similarities, and is to my ears very pleasing. The Dunnock is actually not a Sparrow at all, which is obvious as soon as you see its thin sharp insectivorous beak, in fact it is quite closely related to the Robin who is of course a far more brash performer, always looking for the limelight. There is very often a procession of three Dunnock (sexes are similar in appearance). One with irritated and exaggerated wing flicks seems to be pursuing another who pretends merely to be intent on finding small insects to eat, and ignores the display, there is also likely to be a third, loitering bird keeping an eye on proceedings from a safe distance. This always makes me smile, a little garden soap opera being played out. Mr. Dunnock has trouble with his wife; he is the one doing all the wing flicking. He has spent a lot of time and energy staking out a territory, has sung its boundaries, built a nest, and finally attracted a female to it. She however has a habit of keeping a ‘toy boy’ on the go, and given half a chance will disappear into the bushes for a tryst. So Mr. Dunnock spends a lot of time trying to keep track of her and discourage his sneaky rival who doesn’t bother with all the effort of establishing his position but is content as a gigolo. Who may well manage to have some of his offspring brought up and reared by Mr. Dunnock. That’s how I see it anyway, elsewhere in human knowledge the complexities are increased. Wikipedia says: “Broods, depending on the population, can be raised by a lone female, multiple females with the part-time help of a male, multiple females with full-time help by a male, or by multiple females and multiple males. In pairs, the male and the female invest parental care at similar rates. However, in trios, the female and alpha male invest more care in chicks than does the beta male. In territories in which females are able to escape from males, both the alpha and beta males share provisioning equally. This last system represents the best case scenario for females, as it helps to ensure maximal care and the success of the young.” Confused? If we are, how do they manage?

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