It’s highly unlikely that a nightingale has ever sung in Berkeley Square: the habitat isn’t right, and even records of passage migrants in inner London are few.
This hasn’t always been the case. When the duke of Buckingham bought the land where Buckingham Palace now stands in 1703, it was said to be a wilderness full of blackbirds and nightingales.
Until a century ago nightingales could still be found commonly around London. One found on Hampstead Heath in 1819 was celebrated in John Keats’s poem, Ode to a Nightingale.
In Victorian times charabanc parties would go out to listen to nightingales. The identification was not always correct, and some parties were entertained by blackcaps or garden warblers instead.
They are not the only birds that will sing at night, while they will also sing during the day, too. However, it’s at night that they are heard best, when competition from other songsters is minimal.
What makes the song so exceptional is its variety, its range and power. Studies have shown that individual birds may have a repertoire of over 200 different phrases.
As with most birds, it’s only the male that sings, a point not appreciated by early poetic writers, who always cast the singing nightingale as a she.
Most males sing from dense cover where they are usually hard to see. Only occasionally will they sing from exposed perches.
Seeing a nightingale is always difficult, as they are famous for their ability to skulk in thick cover where they are difficult to spot.
Both sexes of nightingale are identical in appearance to the human eye. They are also rather plain and unexciting to look at.
In England, the cocks start singing as soon as they return from migration in mid to late April; they will continue until early June. In contrast, Continental birds have a much longer song period, probably because they have two broods so defend their territory for much longer.
The most celebrated recording of a nightingale singing was made in an Oxted garden in 1924. The bird was accompanied by Beatrice Harrison on her cello, and the subsequent radio broadcast was heard by a million people.
Two hundred years ago there was a trade in trapped nightingales as cage birds, but few lived for long in captivity.
Britain’s nightingale population is thought to be around 4,000 pairs.
Most of our nightingales are to be found in southeast England and East Anglia. They have never bred in Ireland or Scotland, and no longer do so in Wales.
Our birds are on the northwestern edge of their range. Spain, France and Italy have the biggest populations, numbering tens of thousands of pairs.
In northeast Europe the very similar thrush nightingale replaces the nightingale.
Europe’s birds all winter in sub-Saharan Africa as far east as Uganda.
Southward migration starts in July and peaks in late August.
It is thought that the birds fly across the Mediterranean and the Sahara in one flight.
Wintering birds tend to remain faithful to the same area for weeks or even months.
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