Nightingale

, 16 June 2019
Nightingale
Nightingale © Derek Middleton

By Charlotte Owen

WildCall Officer

One of the surest signs of spring is the welcome return of our migrant birds, and the Nightingale is one of the most eagerly anticipated.  Every year these beautiful birds make an incredible 3,000 mile journey from West Africa to the UK to breed, and Sussex is one of the best counties to listen out for them.  They usually arrive in mid to late April but this year, as May crept closer to June and we still hadn’t heard one at Woods Mill, we started to lose hope.  Maybe they wouldn’t be coming this year.

Thankfully their flight hadn’t been cancelled but was merely delayed.  We were overjoyed to hear a Nightingale singing on the reserve a few weeks ago, poetically from the undergrowth right next to Nightingale Bridge.  Since then we have only heard sporadic singing – and I’m lucky enough to be listening to the odd burst as I write this, drifting in through the office window from an unlikely location next to the main road – and while they may not be nesting here this year, there are several definite territories nearby.  

This is a big relief.  We think that Sussex supports about 13 per cent of the UK’s Nightingale population, so maybe up to 760 singing males, but the general trend is a decline in numbers and a contraction in range.  Nightingales like to nest in dense patches of thorny hedge and scrub, which are now harder to come by – due mainly to a combination of less coppicing, more deer browsing and occasionally direct destruction of habitat.  So, once a male finds a suitable site, he pours forth his powerful song day and night to defend his territory and attract a mate.

Females listen carefully and will choose a partner based on the quality of his musical performance, with research suggesting that the more accomplished singers make better fathers.   The male plays a significant role in chick-rearing by feeding his mate while she incubates the eggs, bringing food for the hatchlings and defending the nest from predators.  Males with a more complex and impressive repertoire tend to feed their chicks more often, making them more desirable dads.

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