1902 Encyclopedia > Nightingale


NIGHTINGALE (Anglo-Saxon, Nihtegah, literally " singer of the night"), the bird justly celebrated beyond all others by European writers for the admirable vocal powers which, during some weeks after its return from its winter-quarters in the south, it exercises at all hours of the day and night. The song itself is indescribable, though several attempts, from the time of Aristophanes to the present, have been made to express in syllables the sound of its many notes; and its effects on those that hear it depend so much on their personal disposition as to be as varied as are its tones. To some they suggest melancholy; and many poets have descanted on the bird (which they nearly always make of the feminine gender) leaning its breast against a thorn and pouring forth its melody in anguish. It is accordingly to be observed that the cock alone sings, and that there is no reason to suppose that the cause and intent of his song, unsurpassed though it be, differ in any respect from those of other birds' songs (see BIEDS, vol. iii. p. 770). Sadness, therefore, is certainly the last impelling sentiment that can be properly assigned in this case. In great contrast to the Nightingale's pre-eminent voice is the inconspicuous coloration of its plumage, which is alike in both sexes, and is of a reddish-brown above and dull greyish-white beneath, the breast being rather darker, and the rufous tail shewing the only bright tint. The range of this bird in Europe has already been so fully described (BIEDS, vol. iii. p. 756, 757) as to render a further account of it needless. The Nightingale reaches its English home about the middle of April, the males (as is usual among migratory birds) arriving some days before the females ; and, often stopping on their way, letting their song be heard in places they do not habitually frequent, pass to their proper breeding-quarters. At this time they run very great danger from birdcatchers, for their capture is effected with facility, and it is painful to add that of those then caught nine-tenths are said to die within a month. Fortunately for the species, it receives great protection from the practice of game-preserving, which guards from intrusion so many of the localities it affects, and there is probably no country in which the Nightingale breeds more abundantly and in greater security than in England. On the cocks being joined by their partners, the work for which the long and hazardous journey of both has been undertaken is speedily begun, and before long the nest is completed. This is of a rather uncommon kind, being placed on or near the ground, the outworks consisting chiefly of a great number of dead leaves ingeniously applied together so that the plane of each is mostly vertical. In the midst of the mass is wrought a deep cup-like hollow, neatly lined with fibrous roots, but the whole is so loosely constructed, and depends for lateral support so much on the stems of the plants, among which it is generally built, that a very slight touch disturbs its beautiful arrangement. Herein from four to six eggs of a deep olive colour are duly laid, and the young hatched. If the latter be taken when nearly fit to fly from the nest, they can with proper care be reared by hand, and this is the only justifiable mode of proceeding for those who wish to keep this fine songster in confinement, as, if the birds survive their first moult, they may live for some years in a cage, and the cocks will in due time exercise their full vocal powers. The nestling plumage of the Nightingale differs much from that of the adult, the feathers above being tipped with a buff spot, just as in the young of the Redbreast, Hedge-Sparrow, and Redstart, thereby shewing the natural affinity of all these forms. Towards the end of summer the Nightingale disappears, and but little has been observed of it in its winter-retreats, which are presumably in the interior of Africa. One of the few records of it at that season proves that it visits the Gold Coast (Ibis, 1872, p. 291).

The Nightingale is the Motacilla luscinia in part of Linnaeus, and the Daulias luscinia of some modern ornithologists. In the east of Europe a second species occurs which was not discriminated by Linnaeus, though long known to German bird-fanciers as the Sprosser. This, the Sylvia philomela or Daulias philomela of many scientific writers, is a somewhat larger bird, which fact, and the presence of some faint spots on its breast, have caused it to receive the English name of Thrush-Nightin-gale. Its westward range appears to be limited to the valley of the Rhine, and the statement that it has occurred in England is erroneous. Its song is louder than that of the true Nightingale, but not so sweet in tone or so varied in note. The name Nightingale has been vaguely applied to several other birds. The so-called "Virginian Nightin-gale " is a species of GROSBEAK (vol. xi. p. 205), and the REDWING (q.v.), strangely enough, has been often spoken of as the " Swedish Nightingale."

The Nightingale holds a place in classical mythology. Procne and Philomela were the daughters of Pandion, king of Attica, who in return for warlike aid rendered him by Tereus, king of Daulis in Thrace, gave him the first-named in marriage. Tereus, however, being enamoured of her sister, feigned that his wife was dead, and induced Philomela to take her place. On her discovering the truth, he cut out her tongue to hinder her from revealing his deceit; but she depicted her sad story on a robe which she sent to Procne; and the two sisters then contrived a horrible revenge for the infidelity of Tereus, by killing and serving to him at table his son Itys. Thereupon the gods interposed, changing Tereus into a Hoopoe,
Procne into a Swallow, and Philomela into a Nightingale, while Itys was restored to life as a Pheasant, and Pandion (who had died of grief at his daughters' dishonour) as a bird-of-prey (see OSPREY). The fable has several variants. Ovid's version may be seen in the 6th Book of his Metamorphoses (lines 412-676). (A.N.)


Poets and novelists are apt to command at will the song of this bird, irrespective of season. If the appearance of truth is to be regarded, it is dangerous to introduce a Nightingale as singing in England before the 15th of April or after the 15th of June. The "Early Nightingale" of newspaper paragraphs is generally a Song-Thrush.

The above article was written by: Prof. Alfred Newton.

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