And A Nightingale Sang

24th September 2010

The nightingale is celebrated for the sublime beauty of its song, but it has rather a low visual profile. Sadly, reports Jack Watkins, it seems that that profile is growing ever lower…

Heading homewards on a recent stroll, I climbed across the brow of a hill to find a group of swallows flitting about over the field below, putting on a display of energetic swoops and swerves that could not have been more impressive had I paid money at the gate to watch a professional airshow. Enjoyable as the spectacle was, I looked on with a tinge of melancholy, in the knowledge that these perky little creatures would be flying back to their African winter grounds shortly, marking the passing of our warm seasons for another year.

Swallows, and their close cousins the house martins, are two of Britain’s most high profile migrant bird species, much observed as they gather in flocks in preparation for their autumn departure, and welcomed back like old friends when they return the following spring. However, the nightingale, another famous summer resident, seems to head back to its winter quarters in West Africa pretty much unnoticed. In fact, you could argue that there’s scarcely another bird so celebrated in literature, whose actual physical profile remains so low and unrecognised.

The incongruity of the plain brown plumage and shy, skulking habits of a bird with such a beautiful voice have long been remarked upon. As far back as the seventh century, Aldheim, the distinguished scholar and Abbot of Malmesbury, imagined a nightingale ruefully reflecting ‘Mean is my colour, but none hath scorned my song’. More prosaically, the RSPB’s Birds of Britain and Europe describes it as ‘quite plain in appearance’ but with ‘one of the finest songs in Europe’. It’s little surprise that one of the earliest radio broadcasts featured a recording of a nightingale plaintively trilling from the depths of a Surrey wood, though its position as number one among our songbirds is not uncontested…

One nature reserve manager argued a good case to me not so long ago for the superiority of a woodlark’s melodiously wistful descents down the scale over the ‘twiddly’ stops and starts of a nightingale. The willow warbler has a wonderful cascading song, a great heraldic sound to welcome the return of spring, and it’s difficult to tire of the sound of song thrushes and blackbirds.

Even accepting the claims of these other contenders, the fact remains that to catch a nightingale in full voice is to hear the performance of a virtuoso. I’ve only had the fortune to do so once, on a drowsy summer’s day, the notes coming from some unseen bird deep within a blackthorn thicket. What makes the nightingale song special, I think, is not merely its rich, bubbling tone, but the timing of the pauses between its varied phrases, and the changes in tempo, deployed as if to underscore the dramatic effect.

Here’s a two-part strategy for working a serious bird-watching type into a rage. First, quote Milton’s reference in Paradise Lost to “…the wakeful nightingale; She all night long her amorous descant sung.” This is sure to annoy because it is only the male, trying to attract a mate, who sings. Follow that up by warbling a few lines from A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. You’ll be told, in the sternest tones that it’s highly improbable that a nightingale would ever sing in a Mayfair square, given the scant vegetative cover on offer: far more likely to have been a robin, a bird known to sing under the glow of a street light on occasion
In fact, the nightingale looks not unlike a robin, although it is slightly bulkier. While its shy and retiring behaviour here seems very different from the extrovert redbreast, in the warmer climes of southern Europe it is more confident and can be seen singing from quite exposed perches. Global warming might suggest that we could expect to see more of the nightingale in future – the breed is at the northern edge of its range in England, its largest summer populations found in France, Spain and Italy – but, regrettably, it seems not.A marked contraction in its population has been noted for several years.

As a ground feeder, it has a habit of sitting low in bushes, so that it can quickly access any insects moving in the soil below. The loss of farmland scrub and the decline of coppicing – despite a number of recent initiatives to manage old woodland again – may be some of the contributing factors.

Recent research by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), currently compiling an updated version of its Bird Atlas, suggests the population has fallen by 91 per cent between 1967 and 2007: the biggest fall for a UK breeding bird since records began, with the exception of the tree sparrow, down 93 per cent. It is highly likely that a major impact has resulted from the huge growth in the population of deer, who browse the low scrub and newly regenerating coppice that provide suitable habitats for nightingales.

However, the problem may also originate in the bird’s wintering grounds. The BTO’s latest initiative, Out of Africa, is carrying out research on migrant birds in West Africa, noting that several other species which also winter there, including cuckoos and warblers, are also experiencing serious population declines. Sadly, if the fall in numbers in England continues at the current rate, the nightingale won’t be heard singing in Berkeley Square – or anywhere.

See bto.org/appeals/out_of_africa_appeal.htm
for more info on the BTO’s Out of Africa Appeal.

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