Few, if any, British birds have inspired poets in quite the same way as the nightingale. The skylark, Shelley’s ‘blithe spirit’, probably comes close, but nightingales edge it. They wait until almost all other birds are asleep before launching into their melodic and astonishingly powerful song, the better to project their presence to potential mates, but clearly it’s a strategy that also has the side-effect of enthralling poets (usually solitary, lovelorn, romantic types, it should be said). Keats is the most famous example, but he’s just one of many.
To call them British birds is, of course, a little bit of a stretch. They spend most of the year in southern Africa, arriving here in April and departing again in September, while your best chance of hearing the extraordinary song is before the end of June. These islands are right on the northern edge of their range, with almost all breeding confined to the south and east of England, and while our warming climate might seem to offer hope that they’ll gradually extend their range, they’re facing increasing pressure on their favoured habitat. They’re birds that prefer the dense understory of deciduous woodlands, but growing deer populations and a decline in woodland management have greatly reduced the amount of such habitat available. They can also use scrubbier land, though, usually in old gravel pits and similar former industrial land, and many of their current strongholds are in just such places.
On the Continent, they even pop up in city centres. When I visited Berlin last April, I took an early morning stroll and found three singing just inside the Tiergarten, not 200 yards from the Brandenberg Gate and the rush-hour traffic. It’s not clear whether they’ve ever inhabited such urban sites in Britain. The enduringly popular wartime song, A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square, would seem to suggest so, but of course, the whole point of it is that the starry-eyed lover would like to believe that all manner of unlikely things happened as he set eyes on his beloved.
Perhaps one of the reasons that nightingales have proved so inspirational, in fact, is that they leave so much to the imagination. The rhapsodic, rippling song, most often heard in the middle of the night (although at the height of the breeding season they’ll also sing during the day), is easy enough to recognise, but in the flesh, nightingales are all too easy to walk past, being very much what most British birders call a Little Brown Job. They’re handsome enough in their own way, with their rusty-brown tail and upperparts, but they’re never going to be as instantly recognisable as, say, their close relative, the ubiquitous and positively gaudy European robin, and they’re a great deal less confiding. Even experienced birders can go years without ever getting a good view of one, to the point that you can start to wonder if the song is just a glorious dream, too.
Robins, incidentally, have something of a reputation as a ‘false nightingale’, as they too have a habit of singing at night, but their song, while sweet enough, has none of the nightingale’s far-carrying power. A few years ago there was some thought that light pollution was causing them to do this, but further research shows it’s a behaviour that’s been recorded for centuries, and now it’s thought that they do it simply because hardly any other bird does, making it all the easier to be heard. If you really were to stand in Berkeley Square at midnight, it’s a safe bet that you’d hear a robin trilling away somewhere nearby.
There are no nightingales where I live, but things are rather different where I work, 35 miles or so further east and a little south. The Bird Watching Magazine office is just off the A1, the old Great North Road. Turn south onto it, towards London, and you quickly come to Paxton Pits, a sand and gravel quarry that’s still being worked, but whose inactive areas have been turned into a nature reserve. The tangle of scrub that lines the old pits is perfect for nightingales, and they respond each year by singing and breeding in good numbers.
Even closer to us, though, five miles to the north, is another reserve, Castor Hanglands. It’s set amidst rather unremarkable, intensively farmed countryside, with many of the hedges ripped up and field margins long since ploughed away. In fact, it can be a rather bleak place in winter. To the east, the land flattens out into the Fens, and there’s nothing to stop the winds that blow in off the North Sea, and beyond that is Siberia. To enter the reserve, though, is to step back in time to what the landscape must have looked like 200 years ago, and in spring, it’s alive with the sound of nightingales. Their songs ring throughout the ancient but carefully managed woodland, the damp meadows, and the wonderfully wild scrub.
And other songs ring through my head every time I set foot in this atmospheric place. In the early 19th century, this was the haunt of John Clare, the so-called “peasant poet” from the nearby village of Helpston. Self-taught, and working in a variety of manual jobs throughout his life, he was later troubled by poor mental health. For a while, though, he was the toast of literary London. His poems—all using his own idiosyncratic spelling and grammar—reflect his intimate knowledge of his local “patch,” and his work is often a poignant reminder of just how much wildlife we’ve lost since his day. He wrote about nightingales again and again and again, suggesting that even then, Castor Hanglands was a stronghold for the songsters.
Clare’s stock has risen again in recent years, with his tendency to treat birds as birds and and not catch-all symbols striking a chord in more plain-speaking times. He’d no doubt be delighted to find nightingales still on his doorstep, but saddened by their wider decline.
Every time I enjoy their song locally, it’s with the nagging fear that it might be for the last time. Poets, artists, all creative types for that matter, need the night and its blank spaces for them to fill from their imaginations, but even more so, the night needs nightingales.
About the Author
Matt is the editor of Bird Watching Magazine (UK), and the writer of three collections of poetry - Troy Town (Arrowhead Press, 2008), hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica (Nine Arches Press, 2010) and The Elephant Tests (Nine Arches, 2013). He lives near Leicester, England, and blogs at http://polyolbion.blogspot.co.uk