Towards the end of the day a shy but very vocal bird comes out to play a remarkable gift. Its song echoes around the woods and shrubbery, competing with any melodic tones of the natural world. I experienced this delight recently venturing into nightingale territory, surrounded by the wondrous sound equalling that of any tenor. This is a bird that has had its singing associated with literature and theatre, with poetry, expressing humans fascination for this bird for millennia. It was also the inspiration for some of Beethoven’s symphony number 6.
Nightingales are visitors that grace our shores only during the summer, travelling from their winter grounds in Africa. While looking rather normal with a dull yellow lustre, like that of more common British bird, they, in fact, have the most diverse sound of any bird with a total of 1160 notes compared to the more ordinary blackbird which only has around 108. However, these mesmerizing, relaxing tones and wonderful melodies could soon no longer grace our ears.
Evening bird calls are usually made up of robins, blackbirds, song thrush’s and the infamous nightingale. The chances of hearing an evening call from a nightingale were significantly higher but now since their decline they are only found in specific spots. On a trip to see them in a local reserve I had to keep an ear out instead of eyes as they live in dense brush, fearful of being revealed. You would expect this makes their identification difficult. Well, in fact, their varied song makes a quick indication.
The BTO undertook a scheme to survey proud singing males either by observation or by their song. This simple study showed that, from an observational point, the population had declined by an estimated 8% from 1990 to 1999 with a combined decline of 53% between 1995 and 2008. It also showed interesting habitat moves with a push towards the east. Populations in Dorset, Hampshire, all dropped over a ten-year period. With a total of 53% decline in the nightingale’s numbers to around 3000 breeding pairs remained in the UK. Their amber status will soon become red.
One site of particular interest is Lodge hill in Kent, one of the last designated nightingale reserves. However, with increasing pressure from politicians and construction companies it seems this final stronghold will soon fall. This is combined with regional habitat loss in the western parts of the UK, is pushing numbers down the numbers even further.
The other culprit in this torrid affair is the overcrowding of deer and the reduction in woodland management. Again we fall foul to the old problem of rewilding it seems. The nightingale was a common bird in our woodlands but, over the years, a reduction in woodland management due to less funding from the councils is forcing the birds to live in scrubland, where uncontrolled deer populations roam and destroy, eating much of the low-lying foliage. This is why they were a more common bird in our countryside: we used to create coppiced areas for them to thrive, feed on insects and we used to maintain deer populations ourselves by hunting for food. Now this is not the situation. The habitat loss issue is also a problem in their wintering grounds in Africa, where farming has removed areas for grazing and agriculture. This is not a problem just for the nightingales, but also is the case for numerous summer birds like the cuckoo or turtle-dove that all show a consistent decline, up to 73%. These declines are mostly related to hunting on their routes to winter grounds; around a million birds each year get captured in Spain usually for food or prizes.
The definitive explanation for such a reduction in the nightingale is notoriously difficult to quantify due to their temporary residence in the UK and the difficulty in accessing exact numbers. It is however rather obvious that the numbers are falling at a worrying rate linked to habitat destruction by us, by deer, a reduction in habitat management and hunting during their return journey. If areas of coppice or scrubland were left to grow and increase in size, insects should increase, with the hope that this wonderful tenor of a bird should return in greater numbers. I just wanted to end with the nightingale song. Personally, I would recommend to get out there and look around the south-east of England in the early evenings between April and June to hear an incredible melody. Soon this beautiful melody will no longer ring around the woodland and scrubland and may be lost forever.
Video from the RSPB
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