Dear Readers, I have never knowingly heard a nightingale, and yet this bird is deeply linked to our ancestral memory – English folksongs regularly rhapsodise about the sound of the bird, and I particularly like this rendition of ‘The Sweet Nightingale‘ by Jackie Oates. Clearly Keats was familiar with the bird, and his poem ‘Ode to a Nightingale‘ was written on hearing the bird on or close to Hampstead Heath, just a mile from where I live And yet, I’ll bet I’m not the only person who has never heard this little brown migratory bird, a little bigger than a robin, which used to fill the air with sweet music. Have a listen below – this was recorded in Suffolk by the aptly-named Antony Wren.
And this is also a UK recording, by David Bissett. You get a whole 8 minutes of song in this one (plus some woodpigeons in the background for good measure)
Nightingales are migratory birds, arriving in the UK about now, so if you hear a bird singing in coppice or shrub there’s a possibility that it could be a male nightingale setting up his territory. Alas, these days it’s more likely to be that other nocturnal singer, a robin, and very glad of him we are too. However, the nightingale, unlike the robin, has very particular requirements, and these are not being met, resulting in a 92% drop in the number of nightingales breeding in the UK since 1970.
At the Knepp Estate (famous also for its turtle doves and purple emperor butterflies), an attempt has been made to identify exactly what the nightingales need in order to settle and breed. Historically they have been birds of coppiced woodland, but at Knepp it was found that what they preferred (as to what they used in extremis) were dense hedgerows and scrub – mixed hedgerows 8 to 14 metres deep were developed, containing a preponderance of blackthorn to keep many predators out, and the number of nightingale territories has increased from 7 to 34, an amazing success story. In 2021, over 40 singing males were heard. Previously, much of the blame for the fall in the number of nightingales had been attributed to problems during migration, and I’m sure that’s part of the story (after all, the birds fly across the Sahara desert to be here), but the provision of suitable habitat seems to indicate that if the conditions are right, they’ll stay.
The experiment at Knepp makes an interesting point. Here’s what their website says:
“Nightingale territories are usually found in habitats associated with woodland and woodland edge, with coppiced woodland being particularly important historically. Their dramatic decline is thought to be in response to changes in woodland management and intense deer pressure, resulting in the loss of low, dense under-storey vegetation. Surveys over the last 30 years, however, have identified scrub – such as in the Southern Block at Knepp – as being particularly important habitat for nightingales, providing suitable habitat structure for up to twice as long as coppiced woodland. The fact that scrub is rarely tolerated in the modern landscape has no doubt contributed significantly to the nightingale’s decline.
But it also demonstrates how we can be deceived by our own observations and received wisdom. We think we know the preferences of a certain species but forget that in our depleted landscape we may be observing it at the very limit of its abilities – not where it wants to be at all, but where it is clinging on for dear life. The potential of process-led projects like Knepp, where nature is allowed to reveal herself rather than be dictated to by human management, is enormous. It allows us to observe what species like nightingales really want and that, in turn, will help us to plan for their conservation in the future.”
I find this all very heartening. I am all for actually observing what’s going on with curiosity and empathy – animals and plants have much to teach us about what they actually want and need, if we are not too hung up on our own stories about what they should require. I would love to hear the nightingale in real life, even if I have to make a trip to Knepp to hear it, but how much more wonderful it would be if we could make a home for them all over the south of the country.
As usual, John Clare’s keen eyes noticed where the nightingale likes to make her nest nearly 200 years ago. I love the kindness of this poem, and his sympathy with the mother bird. If everyone could share his sense of being part of nature, rather than outside it, I suspect we would not be having quite so many conversations about how nature-depleted we are.
The Nightingale’s Nest
Up this green woodland ride let’s softly rove
And list the nightingale – she dwelleth here.
Hush! let the wood gate softly clap – for fear
The noise might drive her from her home of love;
For here I’ve heard her many a merry year
At morn and eve, nay, all the live-long day
As though she lived on song – this very spot,
Just where that old man’s beard all wildly trails
Rude arbours o’er the road and stops the way,
And where that child its bluebell flowers hath got,
Laughing and creeping through the mossy rails.
There have I hunted like a very boy
Creeping on hands and knees through matted thorns
To find her nest and see her feed her young,
And vainly did I many hours employ:
All seemed as hidden as a thought unborn.
And where these crimping fern leaves ramp among
The hazel’s underboughs – I’ve nestled down
And watched her while she sung – and her renown
Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird
Should have no better dress than russet brown.
Her wings would tremble in her ecstasy
And feathers stand on end as ’twere with joy
And mouth wide open to release her heart
Of its out-sobbing songs – the happiest part
Of Summer’s fame she shared – for so to me
Did happy fancies shapen her employ;
But if I touched a bush or scarcely stirred
All in a moment stopped – I watched in vain:
The timid bird had left the hazel bush
And at a distance hid to sing again,
Lost in a wilderness of listening leaves.
Rich ecstasy would pour its luscious strain
Till envy spurred the emulating thrush
To start less wild and scarce inferior songs,
For cares with him for half the year remain
To damp the ardour of his speckled breast,
While nightingales to Summer’s life belongs,
And naked trees and Winter’s nipping wrongs
Are strangers to her music and her rest.
Her joys are evergreen; her world is wide.
– Hark! there she is, as usual, let’s be hush,
For in this blackthorn clump if rightly guessed
Her curious house is hidden – part aside
These hazel branches in a gentle way
And stoop right cautious ’neath the rustling boughs;
For we will have another search today
And hunt this fern-strown thorn-clump round and round,
And where this seeded woodgrass idly bows
We’ll wade right through; it is a likely nook.
In such-like spots and often on the ground
They’ll build where rude boys never think to look.
Aye, as I live, her secret nest is here,
Upon this whitethorn stulp – I’ve searched about
For hours in vain – there; put that bramble by.
Nay, trample on its branches and get near
– How subtle is the bird; she started out
And raised a plaintive note of danger nigh
Ere we were past the brambles, and now near
Her nest she sudden stops – as choking fear
That might betray her home – so even now
We’ll leave it as we found it – safety’s guard
Of pathless solitudes shall keep it still.
See; there she’s sitting on the old oak bough,
Mute in her fears – our presence doth retard
Her joys and doubt turns every rapture chill.
Sing on, sweet bird; may no worse hap befall
Thy visions than the fear that now deceives.
We will not plunder music of its dower
Nor turn this spot of happiness to thrall,
For melody seems hid in every flower
That blossoms near thy home – these harebells all
Seems bowing with the beautiful in song,
And gaping cuckoo with its spotted leaves
Seems blushing of the singing it has heard.
How curious is the nest. No other bird
Uses such loose materials or weaves
Their dwellings in such spots – dead oaken leaves
Are placed without and velvet moss within
And little scraps of grass – and scant and spare
Of what seems scarce materials, down and hair,
For from man’s haunts she seemeth nought to win.
Yet nature is the builder and contrives
Homes for her childern’s comfort even here
Where solitude’s disciples spend their lives
Unseen save when a wanderer passes near
That loves such pleasant places – Deep adown
The nest is made an hermit’s mossy cell.
Snug lies her curious eggs, in number five,
Of deadened green or rather olive brown
And the old prickly thorn bush guards them well.
And here we’ll leave them still unknown to wrong
As the old woodland’s legacy of song
I love John Clare’s observations and continue to be fascinated by the good work being done at the Knepp Estate.
You can often hear Nightingales at Fisher’s Green in the Lea Valley and a couple of days ago I heard them at Pulborough Brooks in Sussex.
Thanks Jon! There seem to be more about than I thought, and the Lea Valley is pretty accessible from where I live…
There are nightingales at Fingringhoe Wick nature reserve in Essex. In late April and early May they have guided evening nightingale walks. We went during the day armed with the Merlin bird ID ap and nightingales were singing all around us, but we didn’t spot any. It’s a beautiful little site with views over the sea as well as the scrub and woodland – well worth a visit next year to hear them.
Thank you, Liz, I shall have to make a pilgrimage…
Beautiful poem! I have knowingly heard nightingales, but only but going on special pilgrimages. I heard them at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk and Capel in Surrey. But I also heard them unknowingly: my mother told me they used to sing in the scrub behind our back garden in the house I lived in till I was four. That scrub has since been replaced by housing. I’m happy and sad to know that I listened to nightingales in my cot.
How lovely, Sarah…
A treat to get Clare’s long poem, with so much detail in it of countryside, plant and bird life and his own observation. And he creates a small drama involving an unknown person (reader? child?) so the poem never becomes static.
Yes, I hadn’t come across this one but as always they are so closely observed…
Sam Lee is a musician who runs a project leading walks to hear (and sing with !) nightingales in southern England. He has also written a book. Website = https://samleesong.co.uk
Very interesting, Liz! One of the first radio recordings in the UK was of someone playing the cello with nightingales singing in the bush next to her, I shall have to see if I can find it…