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30th April 1998

Chris Mead

(This portrait is based on an item which is appearing in Wildlife of Britain. This is published weekly by Bright Star Publishing of 179 Dalling Road, London W6 0ES.)

(See also the BTO Nightingale Appeal).


Nov-FebIn tropical West Africa in open woodland, areas with small trees and scrub where the birds often sing. Often found in wetter areas and many sing so easily detected.
Mar-AprThe spring migration sees the birds come to the edge of the Sahara, put on weight for the journey and cross it. Birds arrive back in Britain in mid-April.
MayThe main month for song. The birds have paired and most of the nests will have eggs by the end of the month.
Jun-JulThe young fledge in June and the parents look after them both in the nest and also for a month or so out of it. Very little real song is heard.
AugThis is the main month for autumn passage through Britain and into the adjacent parts of Europe. However they are seldom seen.
Sep-OctThis is the period of autumn passage 3,000 kms to the winter quarters which is relatively leisurely and few arrive there until early November.

Wildlife Watch

See helpline 0891700252 (charged at 50p per minute) for sites where it can be heard in Britain from 15th April to 15th June.

Fact File

The elusive and romantic Nightingale is a long distance migrant cousin of the familiar garden Robin. It is to the ear that this bird appeals so much. Some people prefer the songs of other species but it is invariably in the top three of any bird song enthusiast. It has much going for it. It is strong, varied and musical. There are very few other birds, and none as striking, which sings at night and it only active for a few weeks in the late spring. Many poets, since Anglo-Saxon times, have sung its praise.

NamesEnglish name: Nightingale; Scientific name: Luscinia magarhynchos
Size Length 17 cm, weight 18-23 g.
Key FeaturesIt is a slim, brown bird a bit bigger and not so upright as the Robin with few distinguishing features, to the eye, apart from a warm rufous tail. It has fairly strong and quite long legs and spends most of its time on the ground or low in shrubs and bushes. Its song is well known but only sung in Britain for about six weeks from the end of April. However the family keeps together with harsh ‘tchaaark’ calls.
NestIs built low in the bottom of a bush and often on the ground - seldom more than 30 cm up. It is generally not a neat structure and may even be domed, like a Robin’s. It is nicely lined and is built rather quickly by the hen bird.
EggsPale blue or blue-green and not very glossy with reddish brown pale speckles and mottling. Clutch (only one) 4 or 5.
YoungIncubation lasts 13 days and the young fledge at 11 days - looked after for up to three weeks after fledging.
SeasonMay and June
FoodMainly insects such as beetles and ants taken on the ground or from low down in vegetation, sometimes eats berries.
VoiceAstonishingly varied and pleasing repertoire mostly sung at night. Particularly famed for its contralto quality with whistles and haunting, repeated phrases.
DistributionRestricted to the south-east corner of England and decreasing with less than 5,000 singing males in most years. Best populations are in Sussex, Kent, Suffolk and South Norfolk.

Coppiced Woodland

This is a very special habitat and a working woodland regime with great benefit for birds, butterflies and plants. Various species of tree form the basis for coppicing in different areas of the country but in the south-east hazel and sweet chestnut are the usual coppiced species. Of these the Nightingales are most often found in hazel. What happens is that the trees are cut down to the ground every 10-15 years and allowed to regrow, as multiple shoots from each root stool. This makes for a very dense shrub growth ideal for the birds. Since large areas of woodland may be managed like this, but in small ‘panels’ to ensure a crop is available each year, good Nightingale habitat is assured every year. In many areas coppice management is combined with the growth of trees to full size (or approaching it). This is the classic ‘coppice with standards’ and this is often just as good for Nightingales whether it is oak or ash that is grown with the hazel. However in some areas rather more standard trees are left to grow which shades the coppiced layer so that it does not grow so dense - few if any Nightingales are the result.

Nightingale: Sweet Singing in the Night

The Nightingale is acknowledged to be the supreme songster commemorated by many poets and in prose. On a warm summers night the sound of half a dozen or more, singing together, is one of the most enchanting experiences possible. But, sadly, numbers in Britain are dwindling and there are few places where a chorus of Nightingales can still be heard.

The Nightingale is a scarce bird with a British population of 5,000 or fewer breeding birds. This makes it about as numerous as the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker or Kingfisher. But unlike these two resident species it is a long distance migrant spending the winter in wooded areas of tropical West Africa - so you only have four months or so when the birds are in this country. Even then the Nightingale is always very difficult to see and so one is really only able to hear it and so you are restricted to six weeks or so of the song period - end of April and May - if you want to record it.

Many years ago there were more Nightingales in Britain with birds regularly singing in parts of Yorkshire, the Welsh marches and South Wales in living memory. Earlier there were records over much of Wales and it may have been at its most common about 100 years ago. Records from literature show it was well known in southern Britain for centuries and the earliest reference seems to be a Saxon riddle from the 8th century. John Clare transcribed as Nightingale singing in 1832 outside his window as:

Chew chew chee chew chee
chew - cheer cheer cheer
chew chew chew chee
up chjeer up cheer up
tweet tweet tweet jug jug jug

wew wew wew - chur chur
woo it woo it tweet tweet
tweet jug jug jug

On the cold page this seems banal and meaningless. But to anyone who has heard the bird - in the flesh or on record - the rhythm and sound of the bird is immediately brought to mind. The sound of the bird is probably very much the same as that heard by William the Conqueror, Julius Caesar and the Iron Age and Bronze Age inhabitants of Britain all those years ago. The Nightingale has an Eastern cousin, the Sprosser, which replaces it in Eastern Europe. These birds occupy the same sort of areas and hardly overlap. They breed at slightly different times and the Sprosser migrates to the south-east and not south-west. However the songs, whilst similar are different. Our own bird has the richer and more varied song. Recent scientific analysis suggests that it starts to repeat itself on average after two hours, the Sprosser begins to repeat its repertoire after about 20 minutes.

Why Sing At Night?

The idea of singing at night does not seem to have occurred to other song birds and the Nightingales seem to have the floor to themselves. Clearly they have all sorts of benefits. Their clear, loud tones travel over long distance and they are able to advertise the fact that they are on territory - and defending it - to their neighbours. This may be important for a bird that is quite choosy about its breeding habitat. The penetrating song also makes it very easy for travelling spinster Nightingales to hear the males who are advertising for mates. This is certainly a very important function of the song and the fact that the birds stop singing early on in the season is a sure sign that the importance of territory and mate finding lessens later. This may be because more insect food is available later in the season but equally that the males have to spend all their efforts on feeding.

Other birds will sing at night but, with ordinary song birds, it is usually either when they have been disturbed or when there is artificial light. In the later case the birds almost certainly think it is a false dawn. Most birds sing at dawn - the dawn chorus - and the wall of noise is both useful and a difficulty. It is useful as it is a conventional time for everybody to sing and be heard. However it is difficult for them to make themselves heard over a long distance. This is not so much of a problem for a species with a small territory and lots of birds packed in together but it might be for a small bird, like the Nightingale, with a relatively large territory. Incidentally singing at night and at dawn does not waste feeding time. At night or first light the birds are unable to see the insects they need to find and, for the hour or two after dawn, these insects are normally very inactive.

Nightingales in Recent British Culture

Beatrice Harrison, Britain’s premier cellist, was 30 when she moved to a house South of Oxted. She used to practice in the open air and in spring 1923 was astonished when a bird joined in - and in tune! Her gardener identified it as a Nightingale. The next year she made her debut broadcast and hatched the idea of broadcasting her duet with the bird. Lord Reith took some persuading but on Saturday 19 May 1924 the very first live outside broadcast came from her garden just after 1045 in the evening. The supposed audience was over a million and there were 50,000 letters. The outside broadcasts continued for 12 years with Beatrice and then, when she moved, the nightingales were broadcast by themselves.

A commercial record (Nightingales: a Celebration) was made and this was the first record of a live wild animal at liberty. On the 18th anniversary of the first broadcast another was planned. However the engineer realised, at the last minute, that there were bombers coming towards the wood for a raid. Broadcasting the sound live would be a give away for the enemy and he cancelled the programme but asked for a recording channel. The resultant record (also on the CD) was sold in aid of the RAF Benevolent Fund.

The song A Nightingale sang in Berkley Square was written by Eric Maschitz and Manning Sherwin in 1940. The record was made by Judy Campbell and was at the height of the blitz when the capital was bathed in moonlight rather than being flooded by artificial light. It is very unlikely that a Nightingale has ever sung there or in any of the urban squares. Many a Robin thrills insomniac Londoners provoked by lights and most usually singing in the late winter or early spring - when any self-respecting Nightingale is still lolling in the warmth of the tropical sun!

Chris Mead

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