Common Nightingale

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Common Name: Common Nightingale
Scientific Name: Luscinia megarhynchos

Size: 6 – 6 ½ inches (15-16.5 cm)

Habitat: Eurasia; migratory species breeding in the forests in Europe and Asia. It winters in southern Africa as far as Uganda and summers as far as Southern England. It nests low in dense bushes.

Status: Not Threatened. Global Population: 15,000,000 - 70,000,000

Diet: Insects

Nesting: Nests on the ground within or next to dense bushes

Cool Facts: Nightingales are named so because they frequently sing at night as well as during the day. The name has been used for well over 1,000 years, being highly recognizable even in its Anglo-Saxon form - 'nihtingale'. It 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 is likely to serve attracting 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.

Myths, Stories & Legend: The nightingale is an important symbol for poets from a variety of ages, and has taken on a number of symbolic connotations.

In Greek mythology, Aedon, daughter of Pandareus, was the wife of Zethus. The pair had one daughter, Itylus. Aedon accidentally killed her and was stricken with grief and guilt. In pity, the gods turned her into a nightingale, which cries with sadness every night. Alternatively, she was the queen of Thebes, who attempted to kill the son of her rival, Niobe, also her sister-in-law, and accidentally killed her own daughter instead and so the gods again changed her into a nightingale.


What else can I that am old and lame do but sing to God?
Were I a nightingale, I should do after the manner of a nightingale.
Were I a swan, I should do after the manner of a swan.
But now, since I am a reasonable being, I must sing to God: that is my work: I do it, nor will I desert this my post, as long as it is granted me to hold it; and upon you too I call to join in this self-same hymn.
-The Golden Sayings of Epictetus

Homer evokes the Nightingale in the Odyssey, suggesting the myth of Philomela and Procne (one of whom, depending on the myth's version, is turned into a nightingale.). This myth is the focus of Sophocles' tragedy, Tereus, of which only fragments remain.

Just as Pandareus' daughter,
the nightingale of the green woods, sings out
her lovely song when early spring arrives,
perched up in thick foliage of the forest,
and pours forth her richly modulating voice
in wailing for her child, beloved Itylus,
lord Zethus' son, whom with a sword one day
she'd killed unwittingly—that's how my heart
moves back and forth in its uncertainty.


Ovid in his “Metamorphoses”, includes the most popular version of this myth, imitated and altered by later poets, including Chrétien de Troyes, Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and George Gascoigne. T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land also evokes the Nightingale's song (and the myth of Philomela and Procne). Because of the violence associated with the myth, the nightingale's song was long interpreted as a lament.

The Nightingale has also been used as a symbol of the poet. Poets chose the nightingale as a symbol because of its creative and seemingly spontaneous song. Aristophanes' Birds and Callimachus both evoke the bird's song as a form of poetry. Virgil compares a mourning Orpheus to the “lament of the nightingale”.

During the Dark Ages fewer references were made to the nightingale. John Milton and others of the 17th century renewed the symbol. In "L'Allegro" Milton characterizes Shakespeare as a nightingale warbling “his native woodnotes wilde” (line 136), and Andrew Marvell in his "On Paradise Lost" subsequently described Milton's Paradise Lost in similar terms:

"Thou sing'st with so much gravity and ease,
And above human flight dost soar aloft,
With plume so strong, so equal, and so soft:
The bird named from that paradise you sing
So never flags, but always keeps on wing" (line 40)

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. 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 beauty of the nightingale's song is a theme in Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Nightingale" from 1843. The Emperor of China learns that one of the most beautiful things in his empire is the song of the nightingale. When he orders a nightingale brought to him, a kitchen maid leads the court to a nearby forest where the bird is found. The nightingale agrees to appear at court. The Emperor is so delighted with the bird's song that he keeps the nightingale in captivity. When the Emperor is given a bejeweled mechanical bird he loses interest in the real nightingale, who returns to the forest. The mechanical bird breaks down due to overuse. The Emperor is taken deathly ill shortly thereafter. The real nightingale learns of the Emperor's condition and returns to the palace. Death is so moved by the nightingale's song that he departs and the emperor recovers. The nightingale agrees to sing to the emperor of all the happenings in the empire, that he will be known as the wisest emperor ever to live.


Found in Songbird ReMix Birds of Legend

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