Nightingale is a famous name. Perhaps better known than any of the other famous avian singers*: the resounding, clamorous voice of spring, vocalist extraordinaire and muse of English poets from Milton to Keats via many, many others. In the 1940’s a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square, at least in romantic song writing legend, but in today’s scientifically minded world I’m glad to report that the nightingale, Luscinia megarhynchos, sings for real in the scrub and woodland thickets of south eastern England.
Despite that combination of famous legend and fairly accessible reality, I wonder how many people have ever knowingly stopped to listen to one sing? Is it possible to grow up completely unaware of nightingales, or to daily walk your dog past one and fail to separate it from the general din of early morning birdsong? After all, I don’t recall knowingly hearing one until I was a birder. The first time I was trundling through Pulborough Brooks RSPB reserve in West Sussex, when I was stopped in my tracks by an explosion of tropical noise from an unseen bird somewhere deep in the hedgerow. “What in the world is that?!” I thought, for it’s an incredible noise, ear-splitting, breath-taking, inspiring. Unmissable. Unmistakeable. And yet I suspect many do.
Once you really hear one, and I mean really stop and listen, hearing it as a ‘bird-listener’, to use Simon Barnes’ phrase, you won’t forget it. The noise stays with you. The song is a combination of rapid pulses of clicks, interspersed with a rich, whistled crescendo of impressive quality. It isn’t a sweet song, like the robin’s (a relative, as it happens): ‘The Barnsley Nightingale’ as a fond nickname for folk singer Kate Rusby doesn’t really do either of them justice, though it is more evidence of the nightingale’s cultural standing as champion songster. It’s all about power, and rhythm. Were the nightingale a musician I’d imagine it as more suited to the world music stage, than as a traditional English folk star. Nightingales may come to Europe to breed, but they sound like a creature from out of the heart of Africa.
I’m proud to offer the briefest of examples in the following short video clip, filmed at Blean Woods RSPB reserve this week. Usually nightingales sing from somewhere safely deep inside their preferred dense vegetation, so seeing one is a taller order than hearing one. But watch carefully, and you might notice a small bird flit upwards partway through:
That was the nightingale, moving to an exposed song perch. I managed to grab the following six seconds of footage before running out of memory card space (whoops):
From that you’d probably agree that with nightingales, the hearing is the thing, though their brown colouring and rufous tail is not unattractive. I didn’t capture the most intense parts of his song, so I recommend looking up more professional recordings or, even better, going to listen to a real live nightingale singing a command performance somewhere nearby. If that’s still possible – for, as usual, I must strike a somewhat melancholy note at the end of this celebration of song. More than half of Britain’s nightingales vanished between 1995 and 2009, and their range contracted towards its south-eastern core over the same period. This may be due to their breeding habitat becoming scarcer, problems on their West African wintering grounds, trouble en route during spring and autumn migration or, as seems likely, a combination of all three. The BTO is on the case: they tracked nightingales on their way to Africa in 2009, and this year they’re co-ordinating a national population census. So in 2012 us lucky birders not only get to enjoy the arresting aural spectacle that is the song of the nightingale; whilst we drink it in we can be buoyed by the knowledge that we’re contributing in some small way to the on-going existence of that sound, and the bird that makes it.
*Though my unscientific google-hits based survey actually has ‘nightingale’ roughly tying with ‘mockingbird’ with 4,130,000 (4,130,001, I should hope, once this blog is posted) and 4,160,000 hits respectively, and well behind skylark which returns a whopping 19 million plus. Fancy!