Nightingale - Bird Song

15 June 2020 | Posted in James Duncan , Bird Song
Nightingale - Bird Song
Nightingale © James Duncan

By James Duncan

Learning and Engagement Officer

In this series of blogs I'm going to be exploring the wonderful world of bird song (with calls thrown in for good measure!) There's surely little more calming to human ears than the annual serenade of spring song. Each day, prior to the sun's appearance above the horizon, birds begin to advertise their presence, demonstrating their strength and ability in song. This serves not only to attract a mate but also to deter rivals. As you wake in the morning, during these times of increased isolation, take a moment to notice the birds who break the morning silence, the Robin, the Blackbird and perhaps the Song Thrush. Enjoy the chorus as it widens, as Wren, Starling, Chaffinch and Dunnock join in. The complexities of bird song may not be easy to get to grips with, but why not take the time to learn. The satisfaction to be gained from identifying birds by song (and calls) really can't be overemphasised - it's truly a window into another world.

10# Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)

Next up, the glorious Nightingale, a bird with a reputation for song like no other. There are probably very few species with a more prodigious claim to world's greatest songster, certainly not if based purely upon cultural connotations. The song of the Nightingale has been famously celebrated for thousands of years, by writers, poets and musicians all across Europe. The vociferous song is of course in complete opposition to their observability. In Britain at least, the Nightingale is a skulking bird of the understory. In all honestly, most may feel relatively disappointed at the sight of a Nightingale for it is, in essence, a plain Robin-lookalike without the fancy breast. Their posture is markedly different and they do display a rich russet rump and conspicuous white throat, but it rarely seems relevant for few get the chance to see one for long. If anything, their visibility seems barely to matter for the song comprehensively 'outguns' the visual appearance of the bird. People may travel far and wide to hear a Nightingale, quite content to listen to its melodic tones and nothing more. In fact, this isn't a recent thing for the Victorians were exceedingly keen to do so. Unfortunately, during these times of extensive 'collecting', many were not content to listen purely in the wild.

The Nightingale's British range actually puts it on the very edge of its Palearctic distribution. Typically, it's a warm-weather Mediterranean specialist, explaining it's stronghold counties of Kent, Essex, Sussex, Suffolk and parts of Norfolk. That's not to say it isn't found in other UK counties, but the densities are significantly less. Unfortunately the Nightingale is in big trouble in Britain. Climate change should suggest an expanding range northwards, but this simply isn't the case. In stark contrast to the extensive numbers evident in the early 1900's, BTO studies have indicated a staggering decline of 90% in just four decades since 1967. Incredibly, 57% of that has occurred since 1995. Many of the issues lie with their niche requirements, for Nightingales are not birds of dense woodland - they're scrub specialists. For such an iconic bird, so ingrained within our culture, they really do inhabit some rather prosaic habitat. Typically, an impenetrable shrubby layer situated within a shaded canopy and lying close to a waterway will do nicely. However, if this layer is too young or too old it simply won't offer suitable protection. One of the single most important ecological requirements for the Nightingale is a diversity of structure in a non-fragmented landscape, where birds are able to move between viable habitats as the old ones become unsuitable.

From its extensive references throughout history, you'd imagine the Nightingale is comprehensively well understood. In fact, its elusive migratory habits have helped it remain a mystery for centuries. So much so that the lack of information has denied it the highest level of special protection as a Schedule One species of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It's only in recent years their incredible journeys have started to be unraveled - scientists have been able to attach tiny location transmitters, allowing for an accurate study of their precise migratory movements. For a species in such sharp decline this really can't have come a moment too soon. For all its reputation, the Nightingale's singing duration in Britain is short-lived. Arriving back on our shores mid-April, most have fallen silent by early June. The very naming of the bird stems back to an Anglo-Saxon word, translating as 'night songstress.' Of course there's one minor inaccuracy in that the females aren't doing the singing, but that doesn't alter our general perception of it being a nocturnal singer. A fundamental reason to sing after sunset is the very absence of noise, the lessening of competitive sound enhancing the opportunities to attract a female flying by. In truth, birds will sing avidly throughout daylight hours, particularly those males holding territory. Those continuing to sing well into June are most likely unpaired males, singing desperately to entice a mate. For us, hearing a Nightingale at night with the removal of visual stimuli only serves to heighten the evocative experience.

Listen to a section of song in this video below -

So, just how to describe Nightingale song? In truth many may feel somewhat shocked upon first hearing one sing, for a procession of rippling whistles, tweets, trills, gurgles, screeches and croaks may seem at odds with a songster of such magnificent standing. Ultimately it's the dazzling range and simply mesmerising variety conjured by the Nightingale that serves to impress the most. Much of this complexity may relate to the relative size of the 'higher' and 'lower' areas of their brain. It seems the Nightingale possesses an enlarged area responsible for higher cerebral functions, giving it a largely unrivalled repertoire. One study concluded it to boast an ability to perform over a thousand syllables. As a frame of reference, this tripled the syllables generated by the Skylark and monstered the Blackbird by more than ten times. Amongst these syllables, a Nightingale may wield hundreds of individual phrases. The powerful but mellow song really requires extended exposure to appreciate - it's not one that can be enjoyed in just a few small snippets. Though the song may be interpreted as an outpouring of notes, there's just something about the Nightingale's emphatic timing - it's truly superb. It's such a dramatic performer.

The song is always unique, phrases strung together to form a seemingly endless variety of compositions. Perhaps the most magnificent thing about the song may indeed be the composition itself. It may seem strange but the electric pauses sometimes seem as characteristic as the vocalisations. The Nightingale has a remarkable ability to create tension, often drawing you into its phrases with a procession of high-pitched 'whining' or 'piping' notes. It may rapidly escalate the intensity to a 'flutey' crescendo, before switching to something entirely different like a guttural "chug chug chug" interspersed with insect-like buzzing. The sheer diversity makes it particularly hard to transliterate, though perhaps the most recognisable sounds are the repetitive human-esque whistled notes, "lu lu lu lu." There really is no other song that feels improvised in quite the same way. It seems marvellously inventive, an intoxicating combination of fizzing energy, compelling restraint, theatrical drama and striking precision. Phrases within the song will typically last for just a few seconds, often with equal-length pauses in between. Once learnt, the Nightingale's utterly unique style really can't be confused with any other British bird. The Nightingale, in its song, undoubtedly produces one of the natural world's most remarkable sounds.

Listen to an extended version of song below -

Of course the Nightingale's nocturnal singing habits make its song even more striking, purifying it further with the absence of extraneous noise. Humankind has evolutionary reasons for fearing the hostile darkness of night, yet there's something remarkably soothing and reassuring about hearing a Nightingale exquisitely punctuating the silence. Like some urban songbirds, territorial Nightingale's respond to increased environmental noise by singing at higher amplitudes - exhibiting a noise-dependant vocal regulation mechanism known as the Lombard effect. Of course, Nightingales no longer compete in British urban environments for they're just not found within them. The Nightingale is, however, found across Western and Southern Europe and is rather surprisingly increasing rapidly in cities such as Berlin, where there's an abundance of uncultivated and unkempt green space.

Amongst its staggering volume of cultural connections, the Nightingale even enjoyed celebrated duetting during one of the most famous BBC recordings ever made. It also happened to be the very first time that wildlife had ever been broadcast on radio. The famous cellist Beatrice Harrison performed a live duet with a Nightingale from her Surrey garden in 1924, proving so staggeringly popular that it was repeated every spring until 1936. Founder and Director-General of the BBC, Lord Reith, claimed the Nightingale had swept the country with a "wave of emotionalism" and Harrison herself said the experiment had "touched a chord in the public's love of music and nature." In the midst of World War II in 1942, the BBC once again broadcast the Nightingales, creating one of the most poignant recordings ever made. The majesty of Nightingale song was punctuated with the roar of 197 bombers (predominantly Lancaster's and Wellington's) on their way to Mannheim, though eleven fewer made the return journey to Britain.

Whilst the song generated by the Nightingale is remarkable, fascinating and almost beyond compare, its beauty is entirely subjective. In fact it's been a point of contention for an awfully long time. Is it the world's best avian songster? Clearly this is a question for which everybody will have their own answer. Song aside, the Nightingale doesn't often exhibit particularly conspicuous calls, though the most likely to be heard is a high-pitched alarm, a whistled note delivered with clarity, purity and at a consistent pace. It's a really mellow note, more forceful than a Chiffchaff's soft "hweet"and less upwards-inflected than a Chaffinch's ringing "huiit". The note can be heard more strongly from 20 seconds on in the video (below), and it sounds something like "huiip."

Listen to this call below -

Another alarm call that may be heard is a somewhat bizarre, 'amphibian-like' creaking note. It can actually be heard in the background on the clip above. It's more reminiscent of a croaking frog than a bird and its dry, grating, guttural quality conjures an image of a 'wind-up' toy. It may be transliterated as a rolling "krrrrr."

Listen to this call below -


  • Stephen Law:

    16 Jun 2020 15:54:00

    Wonderfully written piece! Almost as poetic as the Nightingale itself :-)

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