1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Nightingale

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NIGHTINGALE (O. Eng. Nihtegale, literally "singer of the night"), the bird celebrated beyond all others by European writers for the admirable vocal powers which, during some weeks after its return from its winter-quarters in the south, it exercises at all hours of the day and night. The song itself is indescribable, though several attempts, from the time of Aristophanes to the present, have been made to express in syllables the sound of its many notes. Poets have descanted on the bird (which they nearly always make of the feminine gender) leaning its breast against a thorn and pouring forth its melody in anguish. But the cock alone sings, and there is no reason to suppose that the cause and intent of his song differ in any respect from those of other birds' songs (see Song). In great contrast to the nightingale's pre-eminent voice is the inconspicuous coloration of its plumage, which is alike in both sexes, and is of a reddish-brown above and dull greyish-white beneath, the breast being rather darker, and the rufous tail showing the only bright tint.

The range of the European nightingale, Daulius luscinia, is pecular. In Great Britain it is abundant in suitable localities to the south-east of a line stretching from the valley of the Exe, in Devonshire, to York, but it does not visit Ireland, its occurrence in Wales is doubtful or intermittent, and it is extremely improbable that it has ever reached Scotland. On the continent of Europe it does not occur north of a line stretching irregularly from Copenhagen to the northern Urals, and it is absent in Britanny; over south Europe otherwise it is abundant. It reaches Persia, and is a winter visitor to Arabia, Nubia, Abyssinia, Algeria and as far south as the Gold Coast. The larger eastern D. philomela, sometimes called the thrush-nightingale or Sprosser of German bird-catchers, is russet-brown in both sexes, and is a native of eastern Europe. D. hafizi of Persia, a true nightingale, is probably the Perso-Arabic bulbul of poets.

The nightingale reaches its English home about the middle of April,[1] the males (as is usual among migratory birds) arriving some days before the females. On the cocks being joined by their partners, the work for which the long and hazardous journey of both has been undertaken is speedily begun, and before long the nest is completed. This is of a rather uncommon kind, being placed at or near the ground, the outworks consisting chiefly of a great number of dead leaves ingeniously applied together so that the plane of each is mostly vertical. In the midst of the mass is wrought a deep cup-like hollow, neatly lined with fibrous roots, but the whole is so loosely constructed, and depends for lateral support so much on the stems of the plants, among which it is generally built, that a very slight touch disturbs its beautiful arrangement. Herein from four to six eggs of a deep olive colour are duly laid, and the young hatched. The nestling plumage of the nightingale differs much from that of the adult, the feathers above being tipped with a buff spot, just as in the young of the redbreast, hedge-sparrow and redstart, thereby showing the natural affinity of all these forms. Towards the end of summer the nightingale disappears to its African winter haunts.

The name nightingale has been vaguely applied to several other birds. The so-called "Virginian nightingale" is a species of grosbeak (q.v.); the "Pekin nightingale" or "Japanese nightingale" is a small babbler (Liothrix luteus) inhabiting the Himalayas and China, not Japan at all.

The nightingale holds a place in classical mythology. Procne and Philomela were the daughters of Pandion, king of Attica, who in return for warlike aid rendered him by Tereus, king of Daulis in Thrace, gave him the first-named in marriage. Tereus, however, being enamoured of her sister, feigned that his wife was dead, and induced Philomela to take her place. On her discovering the truth he cut out her tongue to hinder her from revealing his deceit; but she depicted her sad story on a robe which she sent to Procne; and the two sisters contrived a horrible revenge for the infidelity of Tereus, by killing and serving to him at table his son Itys. Thereupon the gods interposed, changing Tereus into a hoopoe, Procne into a swallow, and Philomela into a nightingale, while Itys was restored to life as a pheasant, and Pandion (who had died of grief at his daughters' dishonour) as a bird of prey (see Osprey). The fable has several variants. Ovid's version may be seen in the 6th book of his Metamorphoses (lines 412-676). (A. N.)

1^  Poets and novelists are apt to command at will the song of this bird, irrespective of season. If the appearance of truth is to be regarded, it is dangerous to introduce a nightingale as singing in England before the 15th of April or after the 15th of June. The "early nightingale" of newspaper paragraphs is generally a thrush.