VEGA News Item

Nightingales: Understorey and the Glory of Song at Night - 06/05/2010

Nightingale Numbers in England have Dropped

1.  Between 1994 and 2007 nightingale numbers in England dropped by 60% and their range shrank towards the South-east, with concentrations limited to Kent, Sussex, Essex, Suffolk, and Norfolk (The bird is absent from Scotland and Wales). Nightingales have vanished from many places where they were formerly loved for their remarkable song, which is sung in the dark and has been celebrated in literature for thousands of years. The disappearance is due to the increasing number of deer eating undergrowth which the birds need for nesting. Researchers have suspected that one cause of the decline of the nightingale might be the destruction of woodland undergrowth – an important habitat – by browsing deer, whose numbers in Britain have increased in recent years. The prime culprit may be muntjac – or barking – deer, a recently introduced species. The animals’ browsing is causing major changes in the structure of woodland vegetation, especially of the understorey of shrubs and bushes.

2.  Chas Holt, a doctorate student at the University of East Anglia, who is working for the British Hunt for Ornithology, established the link between the browsing deer and the decline of the nightingale. He discovered that nightingales in a wood spent most of their time in a tiny part of the woodland from which deer had been excluded, thus preventing them from browsing the undergrowth. Mr Holt radio-tagged nightingales in Bradfield Woods in Suffolk and established paired plots of woodland, half with deer allowed in and half with them kept out. He found that the density of nightingales was 15 times greater in the deer-free areas.

3.  Mr Holt says: “The study provides compelling evidence that increasing deer pressure can have a major effect on local nightingale populations and potentially those of other woodland species too.”

4.  Nightingales are one of a number of migratory birds flying to England in the spring after spending the winter in Africa and whose numbers are rapidly declining. These species include the turtledove, the spotted flycatcher, the wood warbler, and the cuckoo. Scientists believe they may all be facing problems in their wintering grounds in Africa and on their annual migrations of thousands of miles.

5.  The evocatie singing of the nightingale in Berkeley Square, London, and the recording of the bird in a wood in the Home Counties with the rumble in the background of planes setting from wartime airfields to bomb Germany will linger in the memories of some of today’s OAPs, whose recollections will be almost lost in the night-time pollution of sound and light.

6.  However, the few days of withdrawal of air flights has allowed a much fuller appreciation of the singing of “our” birds, even if they are only temporary lodgers and in full song very early in “our” day when singing for supper is the usual call for people expecting plenty of choice in what they can plunder and eat-or even persecute in the name of sport. There’s more in art and music than the flattened intervals and major and minor keys in the dawn chorus to fascinate musicians and composers searching for themes and riffs in the singing and calls of nightingales and cuckoos and the full avian orchestra. Although some species, such as the cockney sparrer are in decline, others are fleeing the killing areas of the countryside in games of molestation for the relative safety and appreciation of the parks and trees in our cities. So once again, nightingales might be heard singing in Berkeley Square while farmers repair to the “parlor” to face the mechanical clangor of the first milking and the latest news bellowed forth from Farming Today on BBC Radio 4.


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