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Luscinia megarhynchos-The Nightingale

Updated on March 29, 2013

The charming nightingale


Missing the migrants

The countryside of the UK never feels so empty than in those early days of March, when the sun's rays only serve to highlight nature's nakedness, and, a sense of desolation as the sun struggles to produce any warmth from the hard, pale, grey sky.

The ground is scantily clad with pale dead grass mixed with old fallen leaves,and, here and there with skeletal remnants of thistle and hogweed.So, it is with great joy when the spring clothes her countryside with her cloak of green, fresh, new life begins to emerge, and the migrant birds that have spent our cold depressing months in sunnier climes, have arrived back in the UK with their charm and song.

One such visitor is always awaited with anticipation, the nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos. The bird has had several scientific names attributed to it in the days gone by, such as Daulias luscinia and Sylvia luscinia. Philomela lusciana { night lover or dark lover} was another archaic scientific name, however, the love of darkness alluded to is not strictly correct. During the period of natural song the nightingale does indeed sing late in the evening and earlier in the morning than most of its fellow choristers of the woodland groves, but there is a period of quietness in the dead of night when the voice of the nightingale is silenced. However, it strikes up once more between dawn and sunrise and generally commencing nearer dawn.

The nightingales song------

The song of the nightingale has attracted the attention of man since writers put pen to paper or quill to parchment as the case may be. thus the song of this charming little bird is a good a place as any to start our review. The nightingales song and its habit of singing is well described in the book- About Feathered Folk {1896}, when Crona Temple stated that---" the greatest of all our music makers is the nightingale. The pity is that it is so talked of, and, written about, and so seldom heard. But, for those who know its song , and do not watch in vain for its coming in the spring, there is no singer among all our British birds that can approach it. Ever since Homer, poets have praised the nightingale from Persian rose groves to the banks of the Thames, men have halted, spellbound, to harken its wondrous song- A moonlit night, and a nightingale sitting singing upon a hawthorn spray-do not the very words give on a sensation of romantic delight, scarcely to be out done by any other idea?"

In the book-British Land Birds, {1857} it states--" That ardent lover of nature Isaac Watson has said,'he that at midnight, when the very labourer sleeps securely, should,as I have often done,listen to the clear airs, the sweet descents, the natural rising and falling, the double and redoubling of its voice, might be lifted above the earth, and say-Lord what music hast thou provided for the Saints in Heaven, when thou affordest bad men such music on earth"


Familiar Wild Birds {1800's}
Familiar Wild Birds {1800's}

Archaic debate about nightingales

In times gone by naturalists had great debates and were not shy in advancing their opinions that there may be more than one species of this bird, and, that besides differences in colour, there are night singers and day singers as distinctive varieties, which continue their different hours of song for at least two or three generations. { see conservation issues below}

The difference in colour in nightingales are never salient and less so, are the differences in the two sexes, in this respect they are less so, than in most song birds.We should not be inclined, despite its song during the hours of darkness, regard the nightingale as a night bird in the ordinary sense of the word. When cage birds were popular { and legal to keep as such} particularly during the Victorian era these words appeared in the publication " Cage Bird"---

" In confinement { the nightingale}, far from being a lover of the dark, it is impatient of a gloomy or dingy apartment and is equally impatient of impure air. The favourable spot for its cage being a cheerful one near an open window. It languishes in health, and colour of its plumage fades, if it is kept in the dark"

Going off these observations they are not displaying the characteristics of a bird with a fondness for the dark. However, a bird kept un-naturally in a cage, is of little value to draw any viable conclusions. In the wild, seasonal changes have a powerful influence in the economy of the species.

The peculiar manner in the way nightingales choose to inhabit certain areas, and not others id somewhat of a mystery. Most of our summer visitors arrive and do not appear to be particularly insistent on types of soil or sub-soils, however,certain species will pick certain kinds of surface or surface vegetation.

Conversely the nightingale seems to dismiss large tracts of similar vegetation when it arrives, and studies suggest there is something particular in the sub-soil of the places. As for an example it is rare upon clays and never found upon the moor or marsh, although in those situations favourable to it, it frequents thickets and shrubs near the banks of rivers and streams.

It does, not,however, seem to take any active interest in the water as such, but rather, the rich , close vegetation which is found in such localities, these are frequented for the insect life that abounds there, and which are the main stay of the birds diet. nature has deemed that there is natural circumstances which a bird { or any creature} is impelled to that place where the food is best and most abundant. Such is the power of this, that there are some birds that travel a full five thousand miles and back again in the course of a season, chiefly by this means.

In those parts of England where the nightingale is most common tend to be the drier regions. Even so there may be nightingales in one locality, and not occurring in a similar one within easy flying distance.


The nightingales arrival

Here in the UK the nightingale does not favour us with an early presence, nor does it stay late in the season. The time differs with the season, which is true of most countries. As a rule the more northerly the country the arrival is later and the departure earlier. here in England it is towards the end of April before they make their appearance, towards the extreme limit of their migration in may well be the middle of May before the birds arrive.

Nightingales on arrival, well at least for a couple of days, the birds stay in locations that are relatively open, before resorting to their more favourable habitat of copses and thickets. During this small window of opportunity, nightingales were once trapped and sold as cage birds. the young of the previous years that have survived the rigours and casualties of migration tend to return to the locality where they were produced, which is the case with most birds. Should the locality have changed during their absence, or, as become unfit for habitation, they will seek out another that is as close as possible to that locality.

Nest and young of the nightingale

The nest of the nightingale is described by Bechstein---

" The nest of the nightingale is in a grove or shrubbery among thick branches, in a thorn bush or the trunk of a tree tangled with climbing vegetation, and even on the ground if there is enough cover there. Its form is simple and unartificial-dry leaves form the outside, hay on the inside and fine roots with the hair of animals, are all the apparatus."

" The female lays her eggs which number four to six, of a brownish green colour on which she sits a fortnight. The young are fed with small caterpillars or butterflies. As the low position of the nest exposes them to become prey of carnivorous quadrupeds, they soon quit it, even before they can fly. The plumage before the moulting has no resemblance to that of the old birds, except the reddish tail. The upper part of their body is reddish grey spotted with yellowish white on the head and coverts of the wings. The underpart is of a rusty yellow, spotted on the breast with dark brown, but after moulting the resemblance is so close that they can hardly be distinguished.

Description of the adult nightingale.

The size of the nightingale varies a little, but its length is in general 5-6 inches, { 13-15cm} of which the tail takes up rather more than two.the tarsi are long and adapted for vigorous hopping around on the ground upon which a very considerable portion of its food id procured, both by poking and scraping.

The bill is more than an inch [2.5 cm} in length and very slender, of a dull brown colour, but with a yellowish tinge at the base of the lower mandible.the legs and toes are of a pinkish colour. the plumage is rufous brown with paler underparts, the tail is rufous. The back is warm brown, the wings pale brown. there is a pale ring around the black eye.

In relation to its body size, the wings are medium short, the tail medium length, the neck short,. The legs are medium length. normally they are extremely skulking and they are rarely seen except diving into thick cover. the flight is flitting. Hops on the ground.

Conservation issues {UK} Courtesy of the BTO.

In the UK, they have been placed on the Amber list of conservation concern since 1996. The criteria of this listing includes a decline in population/distribution numbers of between 25-50% over the last forty years or so.

In Britain there was an estimated 5,600-9,350 males in 1999.

The long term trend in England is thought to be one of decline for this species. The estimated decrease from 1995-2009 is 57%

A new survey was undertaken in the spring of this year by the BTO. The summary of which will appear on this hub when it is published later in the year.

Nightingales winter in tropical Africa. there are four sub species in the world two of which have been recorded in Britain. mergarhynchos {commoner] and gulzill.


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Eiddwen, thank you for being the first to visit and to comment. Your comments are always welcome and appreciated. Best wishes to you.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      7 years ago from Wales

      Another great gem for me to vote up plus share.

      Have a great day.



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