Natural Living – Song Of Summer
by Ruth Lawrence
The famous song of the nightingale is indeed of high quality, with a fast succession of high, low and rich notes that few other birds can match.
Nightingale was my mother’s maiden name and since childhood, I always felt enchanted by these small unremarkable looking birds blessed with one of nature’s finest singing voices.
The nightingale has unwittingly become symbolic for all we stand to lose because of biodiversity loss; numbers migrating to England have dipped so sharply that it is now on the UK’s Red List of species of the greatest conservation concern. Wintering in Africa, the birds spend April to July mating and nesting in Europe and the Middle East. Its name stems from the old English ‘nitgale’ or the night songstress, because it was believed that only the female birds that sang. The males are now known to be the best singers, either to attract a mate or protect his territory. The song is unforgettable due to its sheer variety; a typical singer may use 180 different riffs while a highly accomplished bird may incorporate 250. A fast succession of high, low and rich notes make the song unmatched by most other species.
In 1914, the nightingale captured the public’s imagination during the BBC’s first ever outside radio broadcast, dueting with Beatrice Harrison, Elgar’s favourite cellist as she played in her Sussex garden. The response was so overwhelming that the concert was repeated every May until 1942 when it was halted amid fears that Germany would gain military information from the background noise of RAF planes.
Nightingales are secretive, preferring to hide in impenetrable bush or thicket and although hard to spot, their song can be heard during the day as well as night. The song is more noticeable at night because few other birds sing at this time and only unpaired males sing regularly after dark as nocturnal song is more likely to attract a mate. It is estimated that there are fewer than 6,700 annually breeding males in this country and they breed mostly south of the Severn-Wash line and east from Dorset to Kent.
Shakespeare, Chaucer, Homer, Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth are among those who have referenced nightingales in their work; the song, once heard is never forgotten and to allow people to experience it, the RSPB are hosting events as part of the first National Nightingale Festival from the 13th April-27th May. As the bird’s range has contracted to the south and east as numbers have declined by 90% in the last half century, we are lucky in Sussex to have at least five places where nightingales can be regularly heard including Woods Mill, RSPB Pulborough Brooks and RSPB Pagham Harbour. See the websites for entrance charges, visitor centres are free admission.
If you haven’t heard the nightingale already, make this the year you experience the delight of this elusive singer and if you have children, it will be a moment they will remember all their life.