The common nightingale or simply nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos), also known as rufous nightingale, is a small passerinebird best known for its powerful and beautiful song. It was formerly classed as a member of the thrush family Turdidae, but is now more generally considered to be an Old World flycatcher, Muscicapidae. It belongs to a group of more terrestrial species, often called chats.
"Nightingale" is derived from "night", and the Old Englishgalan, "to sing". The genus name Luscinia is Latin for "nightingale" and megarhynchos is from Ancient Greekmegas, "great" and rhunkhos "bill".
The common nightingale is slightly larger than the European robin, at 15-16.5 cm (5.9-6.5 in) length. It is plain brown above except for the reddish tail. It is buff to white below. Sexes are similar. The eastern subspeciesL. m. hafizi and L. m. africana have paler upperparts and a stronger face-pattern, including a pale supercilium. The song of the nightingale has been described as one of the most beautiful sounds in nature, inspiring songs, fairy tales, opera, books, and a great deal of poetry.
Song recorded in Devon, England
Distribution and habitat
It is a migratory insectivorous species breeding in forest and scrub in Europe and south-west Asia, and wintering in sub-Saharan Africa. It is not found naturally in the Americas. The distribution is more southerly than the very closely related thrush nightingaleLuscinia luscinia. It nests on or near the ground in dense vegetation. Research in Germany found that favoured breeding habitat of nightingales was defined by a number of geographical factors.
In the UK, the bird is at the northern limit of its range which has contracted in recent years, placing it on the red list for conservation. Despite local efforts to safeguard its favoured coppice and scrub habitat, numbers fell by 53 percent between 1995 and 2008. A survey conducted by the British Trust for Ornithology in 2012 and 2013 recorded some 3,300 territories, with most of these clustered in a few counties in the south-east of England, notably Kent, Essex, Suffolk, and East and West Sussex.
By contrast, the European breeding population is estimated at between 3.2 and 7 million pairs, giving it green conservation status (least concern).
Common nightingales are so named because they frequently sing at night as well as during the day. The name has been used for more than 1,000 years, being highly recognisable even in its Old English form nihtgale, which means "night songstress". Early writers assumed the female sang when it is in fact the male. The song is loud, with an impressive range of whistles, trills and gurgles. Its song is particularly noticeable at night because few other birds are singing. This is why its name includes "night" in several languages. Only unpaired males sing regularly at night, and nocturnal song probably serves to attract a mate. Singing at dawn, during the hour before sunrise, is assumed to be important in defending the bird's territory. Nightingales sing even more loudly in urban or near-urban environments, in order to overcome the background noise. The most characteristic feature of the song is a loud whistling crescendo, absent from the song of thrush nightingale. It has a frog-like alarm call.
The common nightingale has also been used as a symbol of poets or their poetry. Poets chose the nightingale as a symbol because of its creative and seemingly spontaneous song. Aristophanes's Birds and Callimachus both evoke the bird's song as a form of poetry. Virgil compares the mourning of Orpheus to the "lament of the nightingale".
In Sonnet 102 Shakespeare compares his love poetry to the song of the common nightingale (Philomel):
"Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
When I was wont to greet it with my lays;
As Philomel in summer's front doth sing,
And stops his pipe in growth of riper days:"
During the Romantic era the bird's symbolism changed once more: poets viewed the nightingale not only as a poet in his own right, but as "master of a superior art that could inspire the human poet". For some romantic poets, the nightingale even began to take on qualities of the muse. The nightingale has a long history with symbolic associations ranging from "creativity, the muse, nature's purity, and, in Western spiritual tradition, virtue and goodness." Coleridge and Wordsworth saw the nightingale more as an instance of natural poetic creation: the nightingale became a voice of nature. John Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale" pictures the nightingale as an idealized poet who has achieved the poetry that Keats longs to write. Invoking a similar conception of the nightingale, Shelley wrote in his "A Defense of Poetry":
"A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why."
The nightingale is the national bird of Ukraine. One legend tells how nightingales once only lived in India, when one nightingale visited Ukraine. Hearing sad songs from the people, the nightingale sang its song to cheer them up. The people responded with happy songs, and since then, nightingales have visited Ukraine every spring to hear Ukrainian songs. National poet Taras Shevchenko observed that "even the memory of the nightingale's song makes man happy."
Dance of Spring Nightingale depicting movement of a nightingale, a solo Korean court dance.
The love of the nightingale (a conventional cultural substitution for the Persian bulbul) for the rose is widely used as a metaphor for the poet's love for the beloved and the worshipper's love for God in classical Persian, Urdu and Turkish poetry.
John Milton's sonnet "To the Nightingale" (1632-33) contrasts the symbolism of the nightingale as a bird for lovers, with the cuckoo as the bird that called when wives were unfaithful to (or "cuckolded") their husbands.
In 1915, Joseph Lamb wrote a rag called "Ragtime Nightingale" that was intended to imitate the nightingale calls.
"A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" (1939) was one of the most popular songs in Britain during World War II. In 2004 the song featured in an episode of series 2 of the Channel 4 sitcom Peep Show, and in 2019 it featured as the closing song of the Amazon/BBC miniseries Good Omens.
Both Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's novel Good Omens and the aforementioned miniseries adaptation joke that, "...while they were eating, for the first time ever, a nightingale (sang/actually did sing) in Berkeley Square. Nobody heard it over the noise of the traffic, but it was there, right enough."
A nightingale is depicted on the reverse of the Croatian 1 kuna coin, minted since 1993.