Accentor – name of 12 species of small, 1 sparrow-like birds forming a single genus and family. They differ from sparrows in having slender and finely pointed bills and a well developed tenth primary wing feather. They are generally regarded as being related to the thrushes or the warblers
Two accentors are found in Europe. One, the dunnock or hedge sparrow (but not in fact a sparrow at all) is a rather featureless bird, identifiable by the grey on its breast, neck and head and its dark brown wings. Its song, which can be heard virtually all the year round, is a hurried jingle rather reminiscent of that of the wren.
The other European species is the alpine accentor. This is a larger bird, more brightly coloured than the dunnock; it has a whitish bib spotted with black and conspicuous white- bordered chestnut feathers on the sides of the body.
Habits and habitat
Accentors are found throughout Europe and Asia. The dunnock can be seen all over Europe except in parts of the far north and south. In Britain it is common wherever there is suitable habitat except in the north where it becomes rarer — it is seldom seen in the Shetlands.
The alpine accentor is found on mountain ranges from Spain to Japan, extending down to North Africa. Occasionally individuals wander into Britain The typical habitat of accentors is in mountainous regions, often well above the tree line and up to the snow line. The Himalayan accentor is found breeding as high as 17,000 ft above sea level, and one race of the alpine accentor breeds up to 18,500 ft above sea level. However, most species breed in the scrub vegetation at rather lower levels. Some species are hardy enough to spend the winter at high altitudes, but others migrate downwards. The remainder live in forests. The dunnock is to be found in many kinds of habitats, but especially in gardens, hedgerows, copses and scrubland
Accentors are quiet and unobtrusive, remaining close to the ground in the undergrowth. If flushed they fly low and in undulating fashion to cover. On the ground they proceed by leisurely hops or a kind of creeping walk, with the body almost horizontal. The wings are often flicked in a characteristic manner — this is most noticeable in the dunnock during courtship and has earned it the name of shuffle-wing.
Most species in the accentor’s family, Prunellidae, tend to live together in flocks. The dunnock, however, is usually a solitary bird, coming together in small groups only
for feeding and a peculiar wing-flicking display. There is lithe migration — it is mainly just from higher to lower ground and from far north to south. Vagrants of the alpine accentor, however, have reaсhed the Faroes, and the Siberian accentor has turned up in Alaska.
Insects in summer, seeds in winter
During the summer months accentors are insectivorous, eating spiders and insects such as beetles, butterflies and flies. In winter they live almost entirely on seeds and berries, even picking them out of animal droppings. They have a finch-like crop and muscular gizzard, and swallow grit to help in breaking up the seeds.
The males sing from rocks or low bushes, sometimes making short, lark-like song flights. Among dunnocks the male plays no part in building the nest or in incubation. The female makes the nest in a rock crevice or in a shrub, out of leaves, twigs, moss and grasses, sometimes with a few feathers (dunnocks very occasionally use a lot of feathers for the lining). Sometimes an old blackbird’s or swallow’s nest is used. The nest is cup-shaped, and five dark blue eggs are laid in it. The hen incubates for about 12 days, leaving the nest only to feed. In species other than the dunnock the male shares in nest-building and incubation.
The young are fed by both parents and fledge in about 12 days. Those of the alpine accentor sometimes leave the nest before they can fly. Dunnocks have two and sometimes three broods a year.
Sings in all seasons
In musical parlance an accentor is one who takes the leading part in singing. We should therefore expect birds called accentors to be outstanding either for their song or for some other feature. In fact they are all relatively inconspicuous birds — the name ‘dunnock’ refers to the dun plumage. They tend to live in inaccessible places and also to make great use of cover.
Nor is the song of an accentor particularly loud or distinguished. But it is persistent. The dunnock, for example, has a short, high-pitched song that is heard at all seasons, by night as well as by day. It is most constantly and vigorously repeated when the bird is excited, as when two rival males meet or the birds are courting. The dunnock is evidently a very light sleeper and will respond to the slightest disturbance at night with a snatch of melody: you can heat it sing in the bush as you pass, especially if you shine a torch towards it. It will also
respond by singing to a sudden gust of wind or a scud of rain. Although the the breeding season is not particularly early in the spring the dunnock’s courtship begins in December and its song gains vehemence at that time when the weather keeps most birds more silent than usual