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 Nightingale - Fact File


Luscinia megarhynchos
Declining summer visitor to S/E England.
Open deciduous woodland with undergrowth, wooded heaths and thickets.

More often heard than seen. It's famous song is rich, loud, with many fast phrases. (We hope to soon include an audio file here). Adults (sexes similar) are russet-brown above with more rufous tail and rump.

16½ cm (6½")


One weekend in May 1992 a Fakenham reporter for the Eastern Daily Press phoned to say that a publican at West Raynham had reported a nightingale seen there during the day and asked if this was unusual.

The answer to this was, yes, but such a thing is not unheard of. Stevenson mentions having two pairs in his garden at Norwich and says: 'The nightingale is by no means a shy bird, at least not when it first arrives, but sings fearlessly throughout the day in the most exposed situations.'

Although I have never heard them sing through the day like Stevenson, I have watched them feeding, which they do in a most thrush like manner. Stopping, they listen with head inclined for the sound of worms moving in the ground and progress in a series of quick runs, before thrusting their beaks into the soil. Most times they withdraw a titbit.

In the woods, it is not an easy bird to see, but its song is unlike any other bird music heard in this country. It consists of phrases and repetitions, exquisite in variety and tune, especially the deep, low sustained notes.

You cannot confuse it with any other of our song birds. Yet as soon as the young are hatched out, the bird loses its beautiful voice and schools its young with a harsh, raucous call.

There are many traditional stories concerning the bird, but all revolve around a theme which is that the bird sings with its breast pressed upon a sharp thorn, in order to stay awake.

The reason for this is that it is alleged that the nightingale originally only had one eye and that it stole the legendary single eye of the slow worm, since which time the vengeful slow worm has been searching for the bird in order to get back its eye. Thus the nightingale sings all night to keep itself awake.

Strangely, the story crops up in various guises all over Europe. Another strange fact is that this beautiful songster is in decline all over Europe.

The decline here can perhaps be best shown by quoting the numbers for the Minsmere Nature Reserve. In 1962 there were 45 breeding pairs there, by 1977 this had gone down to 16 pairs and is still declining.

At present, we have but one bird in our village singing in the woods by the Broad and another singing in a wood at Filby, a couple of miles away.

By Percy Trett

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.