The Listening to Birds Blog

Song Thrush by Nigel Pye //


The song of the nightingale is perhaps the most illustrious of any British bird.  Not too many people wrote to me about them, perhaps because they’re rather rare these days, but here are the contributions of some of those who did.  In some cases these might not have been ‘real nightingales’ but maybe that depends on what you think a ‘real nightingale’ is.

Stephen Munnion from London writes:

In the early 90s during the recession I was a struggling musician/designer living in Islington and it was a particularly bleak time for me – not enough to eat and not really a lot to cheer me up. Each night I would go for a long walk around Islington and even in January of 92/93 I could hear nightingale’s singing their beautiful songs. There are not many things on a bleak January night to cheer you up but I always noticed this. I am not a bird freak and I know very little about birds but I knew what the bird was – what other bird sings at night and, at the time, I guess I didn’t know that it was unusual to hear nightingales in January.

Sheila Ferguson from Maidstone writes:

I grew up in terraced housing in London and as a child my vivid memory is of a blackbird singing in the poplar tree next door. I have never forgotten its song. When I moved to Maidstone in Kent I was convinced for many years there were nightingales in the trees near the river until my daughter enlightened me about night-singing robins. A wonderful song and one which I will never fail to recognise now.

A respondent from Germany:

My most amazing experience was listening to a nightingale in Germany at night. I could not believe how beautiful and clear it was.

Richard Wild from Southampton writes:

As a native of Suffolk, my earliest recollection of recognisng bird song is of hearing a nightingale singing in the garden of the country house opposite my parents’ house in East Bergholt, situated between Colchester and Ipswich. I was probably in my early teens, and used to lie awake, listening for its clear song in the still, late evening, before falling into a deep sleep. It is a sound I have not heard since moving away from the area in 1971, and it is a great sadness to me.

A writer from Dudley:

I like birdsong generally, and can manage to recognize a number; some, such as skylark song, associated with holidays or country walks. My parents taught me to identify most birdsong I know. But most memorable was a ‘nightingale experience’. I learned to recognize its song from a sound effect used for ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at school in the 1960s. I regretted that I’d never consciously heard the bird ‘live’ – until we went to Venice about 10 years ago. Walking on the island of Torcello, in the middle of the day, I suddenly realized I could hear a nightingale, which surprised me because its singing is associated with darkness. Completely unexpected, completely captivating.

A writer from New Mexico:

Where I live now in Albuquerque, New Mexico I rarely hear any bird song. Without it, everything feels a tad empty, dead, and eeriely quiet at times. I have noticed its lack and silently lamented. When I go home to England, I find the song of birds to be a big part of the homecoming. I love waking up hearing the chirps, chatters, and trills of the birds outside. I can literally feel my shoulders descend and my brain smile. One particular memory is of a bird that sings in a tree right outside of my parents house as dusk falls. The song is beautiful and mesmerising, so lyrical and virtuosic. In my head I have always thought of it as a nightingale but I don’t know if it really is.

From Ann Waddingham in Kent:

Outside our house, on late winter nights, a robin belts out a territorial number under the light of a street lamp – people often mistake them for nightingales but there’s no mistaking the real thing. I was absolutely thrilled to venture into the garden one still, June night and hear in the distance the real McCoy, singing by the river. It was a heart-stopping moment of pure joy. For three consecutive years they visited but sadly I haven’t heard them for three years since.

From Rosy Jones in Epsom:

A few years ago we were walking in a Sussex wood, and decided to have our sandwich lunch in a clearing beside some quite dense scrub. Just for a laugh I suggested to my partner that I’d call up a nightingale, not really thinking anything would happen. Still, I started whistling the repeated whistle call that the birds do in between their amazing song. Imagine our surprise when out of the thicket came the sound of a beautiful nightingale’s song. It continued to entertain us throughout our lunch – delightful!

And from Ruth Arundell in Barcelona:

On a camping holiday near the Pyrenees recently my husband and I had a nightingale singing in a small tree very close to our tent for the whole night. We’d never heard or seen one before, but there are so few birds which sing at night that we followed the sound in order to see and identify it. Later we recorded part of the song on an MP3 device so that we could compare it with recordings on the internet to be sure. As with the blackbirds, hearing the lovely melodious song coming from one small bird in the quiet of the night made me feel very peaceful and somehow privileged, as if it was singing just for us.

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