10 amazing facts about nightingales you (probably) didn't know

Slightly larger than a robin, the nightingale is well-known for its lilting, beautiful song but can be surprisingly hard to spot. 

Nightingale singing in a tree

Nightingale singing in a tree © Andy Hay


1. Impressing the ladies

Male nightingales that sing throughout the night are thought to be single birds, trying to serenade migrating females down as they fly over.

2. Early birds

The date when nightingales arrive in the UK is getting significantly earlier, probably due to climate change. For example, the average first nightingale record in Sussex during 1962-93 was 13 April but in 2006-15 was 4 April.

3. Ode to a nightingale

The nightingale and its song is often quoted in literature and poetry as a metaphor for love, beauty and for poetry itself. However these frequently refer to the singing nightingale as a female when it is actually the male that sings.

Nightingale singing in a hawthorn bush at RSPB Minsmere © John Bridges

4. Down to earth

You might expect a nightingale - a bird of thickets and woodland - to nest in trees, but it builds its nest on or just above ground level.

5. Tracked across continents

In 2009, for the first time, some British nightingales were fitted with tiny geolocators. One was re-caught in the UK in 2010, revealing its 4828km outwards journey to wintering grounds in Guinea, West Africa.

6. Favourite foods

Nightingales feed mainly on insects, mainly through foraging on the ground, and in particular are partial to ants and beetles.

7. Decreasing populations

Nightingales are estimated to have declined by 90 per cent in the last 50 years, thought to be due to a mix of factors, including climate change but also increased numbers of deer nibbling away all the dense woodland understorey, which the nightingales need to feed and nest in (see fact 4!).

Nightingale in a tree © Andy Hay

8. Caught for its song

In the 19th century, birdcatchers caught large numbers of nightingales for the cagebird trade to try and 'capture' its song. Most quickly succumbed in captivity; those that survived until autumn often killed themselves, dashed against the cage bars as they tried to follow their migratory urge.

9. Popular 1920s duet

The first ever live radio broadcast of birdsong was of a nightingale in 'concert' with the cellist, Beatrice Harrison, on 19 May 1924 in Oxted, Surrey. It and repeat performances, on the same date in subsequent years, were so successful that Beatrice received 50,000 fan letters.

10. Talented songsters

Nightingales have an astonishingly rich repertoire, able to produce over 1000 different sounds, compared with just 340 by skylarks and about 100 by blackbirds. This is because the part of the brain responsible for creating sound is bigger in nightingales than in most other birds.


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