We have been monitoring the bird populations on Lark Rise Farm in Cambridgeshire since 1999, but one of the consistently increasing species has largely gone unnoticed until recently; the dunnock. This quiet little bird, which often gets overlooked, had its best year ever in 2021.

The dunnock shuffles around in the undergrowth and is a subdued but subtly beautiful mix of browns with some grey, buff and blackish bits. Its quiet song is pleasant but not showy. The only colourful parts of the dunnock are its reddish eye and its lifestyle! Both sexes will mate with as many partners as they can. Loose pairs do form, with the male helping to feed the chicks of his preferred female, but he will sneak off for a crafty copulation with a neighbour and the chicks he is feeding may not all be his.

This behaviour can make counting territories a bit tricky but we have used the same method every year, so the numbers are comparable. In 2021, the number of dunnocks on Lark Rise Farm increased by more than 17 per cent. Looking at the long-term data there has been a steady rise from 21 territories in 2008 to 44 in 2021, so the increase this year is not just a random fluctuation. The dunnock is on the Amber list for moderate decline nationally and is a species that is monitored to indicate the health of woodlands. The increase in numbers on Lark Rise shows that dunnocks are benefiting from the extra hedgerows, scruffy margins and plentiful seed supplies available on the farm.

A mosaic of habitats benefits different species

We have been monitoring birds on Lark Rise Farm since 1999 and the number of surveys has grown as we’ve acquired new land. We’ve been carrying out three surveys since 2008, covering most of the farm. This means we have plenty of data to monitor trends and identify species that are doing well or struggling, which helps inform our conservation work and enables us to share our experience with others.

In 2021 the most common bird on Lark Rise Farm was the wren, closely followed by the skylark, which inspired the name of the farm and the creation of the CRT 29 years ago. Both wrens and skylarks had a better than average year in 2021. The wren had 55 territories while the skylark had 53.

Looking back at the data from the last 14 years, these two species take it in turns being the most common on the farm with the skylark coming out on top overall. Given that they have such different requirements –the skylark preferring open fieldand the wren liking dense cover in hedgerows, woods and scrub – this is a great example of the success of Lark Rise in creating a mosaic of habitats for different wildlife.

Is the increase in dunnocks tempting cuckoos to give Lark Rise a second look?

Cuckoos don’t really have territories because they are not fixed to one nest like other birds, but we had enough sightings and ‘notes’ of cuckoos being heard in 2021 to register a territory for the first time since 2000.

Dunnocks are one of the preferred host species for cuckoos. If there are a large number of dunnock nests to choose from to lay her eggs in, it might just convince a female cuckoo to visit. In turn, the presence of females could tempt the males to keep their cuckoo-ing going on a regular basis.

This year, I will be on the look out for dunnock nests to see if any host a cuckoo egg or chick. This would be our first confirmed breeding attempt.

By Dr Vince Lea, Head of Wildlife Monitoring

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