The Nightingale is famous for its song, but I suspect that few Brits have knowingly heard one singing. The bird is a scarce summer visitor to southern England, where it usually keeps to dense woodland well away from human habitation. Since the males sing only for a few weeks, and mainly during unsociable hours, they are not often heard.
Contrary to popular belief, Nightingales do not sing only at night and they do not always skulk out of sight. From mid-April until early June, after which they are too busy feeding their young, male Nightingales will usually sing most mornings, sometimes out in the open on the top of a bush.
The Nightingale’s astonishingly varied song consists of a succession of rich whistles, trills and gurgles that no other British species can match. The song is so multifarious that a bird can sing for two hours before it begins to repeat any phrase.
Any attempt to transliterate the song has to be inadequate, but one of the best attempts was made in 1832 by the poet John Clare, who heard one singing outside his window. He transcribed the song as: “Chew chew chee chew chee / chew — cheer cheer cheer / chew chew chew chee / up cheer up cheer up / tweet tweet tweet jug jug jug / wew wew wew — chur chur / woo it woo it tweet tweet / tweet jug jug jug”.
I have been privileged to listen to a Nightingale singing its little heart out in suburban London — in a public open space only some six miles from Berkeley Square and about the same distance from anywhere you might be tempted to describe as rural.
The bird arrived in April 2007. Although its song had to compete with the noise of the traffic on one of London’s busiest roads, it managed to attract a mate and the pair nested in a tangle of brambles close to a picnic table and just yards from the park’s main footpath, which forms part of the Capital Ring walking route encircling inner London.
To protect the birds from unwarranted disturbance, the local birding group made a decision not to broadcast the news. Those in the know avoided loitering near the nest site so as not to draw attention to the birds.
To the delight of this privileged in-crowd, the birds reappeared in 2008 to raise another family. But sadly they failed to return in 2009.
Incidentally, the song “A Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square”, published in 1940, is not based on a genuine occurrence of the species in central London. Indeed, it was written in a fishing village on France’s Mediterranean coast. Any bird heard singing at night in Berkeley Square is likely to be a Robin — a species that can often be heard throughout the night in London’s well-lit streets.