The nightingale

David Chapman

The nightingale is one of the best known but least seen birds of the British countryside. Its song has lifted it from the rank and file of the bird world to an icon of our cultural heritage.



Nightingales have powerful voices and a truly wonderful song with many varied phrases interspersed by trills and gurgles. It is often a little infuriating that they choose to sing from the middle of dense scrub where only tantalising views can be had. It is almost as if they are deliberately teasing us by remaining so well hidden but since they do not have very colourful plumage they are probably aware that it is best to be heard but not seen when trying to attract a mate.

Nightingales are most vocal when establishing their territories during May and can be heard singing through day and night. The name ‘nightingale’ came about because of its habit of singing long after dark and, unusually for British birds, its name has been consistently used for at least 1,400 years. The most famous of all nightingales, the one which sang in Berkeley Square, was probably no more than a myth but it is true that nightingales were once found in London including on Hampstead Heath where Keats was inspired to write his Ode to a Nightingale. Recently the nightingale has a suffered a decline in Britain which is probably tied in with the demise of its preferred habitat.

Nightingales are migratory birds spending winter in Africa and summer in Europe. During summer they can be found in the south eastern part of the British mainland (roughly south of a line between the Rivers Humber and Severn). They like woodland with a dense undergrowth and can be found in gardens particularly in south east England.

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