A nightingale’s song

A nightingale’s song is “like The Clash in a bush,” said Chris Packham on last night’s Springwatch (BBC2). Why? Because it’s very loud and has lots of different tunes and riffs.

After their first fast and furious record The Clash did go on to embrace many different musical styles for their albums London Calling and Sandanista! As for the birds, a study found that one male nightingale had 600 different sounds and 250 different phrases. Their song is “as loud as a motorbike 25 feet away” (95 decibels).

Since the 1970s nightingales have been in shocking decline in the UK (numbers are 91% down), so hearing them properly now is a rare treat in this country, one that normally takes time and effort to engineer.

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It was a year ago this week when I first experienced the full nightingale repertoire  during a family gathering in France – my dad owns a house in the medieval hamlet of Bousselargues, near the village of Blesle in the Haute-Loire (south of the Auvergne). In this unspoilt rural countryside, in early June, nightingales can be heard everywhere. You wander down a farm path at dusk and their song is loud and clear:

The best time to hear nightingales singing is at night, said Michela Strachan on Springwatch. Two possible reasons were given – soundwaves travel further in cooler air, reaching a larger audience of potential mates, and few other birds sing at night so they have the stage to themselves.

Male nightingales want their song to be loud and complex because the harder it is to sing, the more it tells the females how much fitter and stronger individual birds are, compared to their competitors.

Packham quoted from Rev. C.A. John’s British Birds in their Haunts, 1885: “It’s a disputed point whether the nightingale’s song can be considered joyous or melancholy. This must always remain a question of taste. My own opinion is that the piteous wailing note which is its characteristic nature casts a shade of sadness over the whole song, even those portions which gush with the most exuberant gladness.”

He pointed out that the female nightingales love those melancholy whistles – “in fact it’s the constancy of those whistles which most excite the females, and when they find a male which produces them they get increasingly fidgety and frisky.”

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