by Charlotte Owen
When it comes to birdsong, the nightingale is a world famous virtuoso with a voice so powerful, melodious and varied that few other species can match it. Countless poets, musicians and artists throughout history have been inspired by the nightingale’s song, and if you’ve never heard one singing – now’s your chance.
Every year, these summer visitors 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. Only the males sing and they usually arrive here in mid to late April, a few days ahead of migrating females. They will pour forth their wonderful song throughout the day and night to defend their territory and attract a mate. Each male has an impressive repertoire of around 200 songs and will select different sequences and melodies depending on the time of day and the message he wishes to convey. They will often sing quite relentlessly, and since the females migrate at night the males must continue singing long after dark to advertise their presence and attract a mate. This nocturnal activity gave rise to a popular myth that males would deliberately sit with their breast pressed against a sharp thorn to keep them awake, but in reality they probably take power naps throughout their singing marathon.
Females will select a mate based on the quality of his musical performance, and research suggests 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, and studies have shown that males with a more ordered singing style and complex repertoire tend to feed their chicks more often, making them more desirable to females.
We’re lucky in Sussex to have a number of good nightingale spots, including Woods Mill, Ebernoe Common, Pulborough Brooks, Pagham Harbour and Abbots Wood. Visit at dawn or dusk during May for the best chance of hearing males sing.
Nightingale singing at Ebernoe Common
film by Clare Blencowe