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12 March 2015updated 24 Jul 2021 3:00pm

The nightingale, and a case of mistaken identity

Tradition tells us if a bird sings at night, it's a nightingale. But it's not quite that simple.

By John Burnside

We can blame everyone from John Milton, with his “Sweet Bird that shunn’st the noise of folly,/Most musicall, most melancholy”, to Vera Lynn, trilling “like an echo far away/
A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square”, but there is no doubt that in English culture the nightingale is a creature as much misunderstood as it is cherished. Samuel Taylor Coleridge tries to restore a more realistic image in his wonderful “A Conversation Poem. April, 1798”, in which the nightingale is a symbol not of melancholy but of (companionable and parental, as well as romantic) love, as does John Clare, whose close observations of nature so often set him apart from other poets:

The nest is made a hermit’s

mossy cell.

Snug lie her curious eggs

in number five,

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Of deadened green, or rather

olive brown;

And the old prickly thorn-

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Yet the nightingale continued to be more of an emblem or metaphor than a physical reality, with even its song being confused with that of other birds. In the mid-1820s, for example, Clare remarked, with regard to the recent fashion for the nightingale as a Romantic emblem, “Your Londoners are very fond of talking about this bird & I believe fancy every bird they hear after sunset a nightingale. I remember when I was there last [while] walking with a friend in the fields of Shacklewell we saw a gentleman & lady listning very attentive by the side of a shrubbery and when we came up we heard them lavishing praises on the beautiful song of the nightingale which happend to be a thrush.”

This is an easy mistake to make. Tradition tells us that, if a bird is singing at night, that bird is, or ought to be, a nightingale (just as when a young lady kisses a frog, it turns into a prince, as opposed to someone more useful, such as a gardener or a pre-school teacher). Yet when we insist on following tradition rather than seeing the world as it is, we commit a double injustice. As the nightingale is neither melancholic nor confined to the darkness (Clare notes, “The nightingale sung as common by day as night”), so the night songs of other birds are neither uncommon nor any less lovely. When our family moved to Berlin from rural Scotland, one of the more pleasant recollections of city life was the night chorus of thrushes, presumably seduced into song by the 24/7 garage lights on the corner of Schwarzbacher Straße. Many birds sing at night, including blackbirds, song thrushes, dunnocks and robins. According to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), “It is unlikely that Vera Lynn ever heard a nightingale singing in Berkeley Square. It was much more likely to have
been a robin.”

Nightingale song. 

If this was true in Lynn’s time, it is even more so now. Although the nightingale is common across Europe, its population in Britain fell by 50 per cent between 1995 and 2008, leading the BTO to claim: “The decline shown by the nightingale is so great that the species would qualify for the red list as a species of conservation concern.”

The reason? The destruction by developers and industrial agriculture of the sandy scrubland and coppice habitats that nightingales favour. Yet, in spite of this steep decline and the significance of the nightingale in English culture, a proposal to replace the most important nightingale refuge in southern England (at Lodge Hill in Kent) with a “sustainable community” (new houses and business spaces) was approved locally last September. Only after huge public outcry was it called in for review by ministers. Now the fate of the nightingale hangs in the balance but it will be a dark, eerily quiet and truly melancholic night – in Kent and in Berkeley Square – if this plan is allowed to go ahead.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food