The common nightingale visits the capital of Germany, Berlin, every year in spring. Although the bird is rather inconspicuous with respect to its appearance, its songs are exceptional and cannot be ignored on a walk through one of Berlins many parks. But why do nightingales sing? And why are their songs so special? In this blog entry I will tell you more about this extraordinary bird and where you can observe common nightingales in Berlin.
The common nightingale
Scientifically, the common nightingale is known as Luscinia megarhynchos. Sometimes the common nightingale is also named rufous nightingale due to its plumage color.
They belong to the Old World flycatcher family Muscicapidae. Bluethroats (Luscinia svecica) and thrush nightingales (Luscinia luscinia) are closely related to common nightingales as they belong to the same genus (Luscinia) like the common nightingale. While common nightingales and bluethroats can be easily distinguished, common nightingales and thrush nightingales have a rather similar appearance. However, they differ in their distributions (but there is an overlap region) and bird songs. The songs of the common nightingale are in general more diverse.
The common nightingale is a rather inconspicuous bird with respect to its appearance. The bird is characterized by a rufous colored back and a rather chestnut-brown tail. Its underside varies between light brown to light gray. There is no sexual dimorphism meaning that males and females do not differ in their appearance. The common nightingale reaches a size of only about 16 cm, and thus, is only slightly bigger than a house sparrow.
Additional information: Although the thrush nightingale has a more northerly distribution, both common and thrush nightingales occur in the North of Germany, including Berlin and Brandenburg. Therefore, there is a chance to confuse a common nightingale with a thrush nightingale. However, thrush nightingales are in general slightly darker and their songs are slower and not that diverse.
Geographic range and habitat
The common nightingale is a migratory bird and cannot be observed in Germany like in Berlin throughout the whole year. You can hear and see common nightingales in Berlin only from spring to late summer. But where does the common nightingale go in winter? The bird spends winter in tropical Africa from Senegal and Guinea in the West to Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania in the East. In spring the birds come back to their breeding grounds - including cities like Berlin. Common nightingales are native to Germany, but occur also in other countries in central and southern Europe and even central Asia.
When do common nightingales arrive in Berlin? Common nightingales arrive in Berlin in spring. You can hear first common nightingales in Berlin around the middle of April.
Common nightingales prefer dense vegetation as their habitat like hedges, shrubberies and bushes. They like undergrowth in order to be able to protect their nests with their fledglings. In cities like Berlin you can find common nightingales also in gardens, cemeteries or in parks where they can find at least some hiding places. A perfect garden like a well-kept flower garden is not a good habitat for common nightingales.
Is the common nightingale getting rarer? According to the IUCN the common nightingale is neither endangered nor at risk of extinction. Their overall population even seems to be stable. However, this does not mean that common nightingales are not exposed to any threats. In Britain, for examples, they have experienced already a decline in the population. One of their threats in Britain is the change of habitat by roe deers as these animals graze in the habitat where common nightingales hide their nests. As roe deers reduce the density of undergrowth, common nightingales have fewer hiding places for their nests.
Interesting facts: Although common nightingales are rather small birds, they are able to travel long distances of up to 5.500 km between their wintering ground in sub-Saharan Africa and their breeding grounds in Europe and southwest Asia.
Behavior and reproduction
In general, behavior is very difficult to observe in common nightingales as these birds are very shy and elusive. While singing they hide behind shrubs, hedges or bushes. Most people only hear, but never see them. In Berlin I have seen common nightingales several times. But as soon as they spotted me, they flew away.
Common nightingales are territorial birds, especially during the breeding season. When common nightingale males arrive in Europe in spring, they establish their territories.
Outside the breeding season common nightingales are solitary birds, but during the breeding season they are monogamous.
Common nightingales build their nests on the ground in thickets and more heavily vegetated woodland.
Interestingly, only females build the nests, usually in 3 to 5 days, but males defend the nest. Typically, females lay 4 to 5 eggs incubating them for more or less 14 days. Only after about 12 days fledglings leave the nest. During the first few days fledglings are very vulnerable as they are still not able to fly when they leave the nest. One of their main predators are squirrels or Eurasian jays during this period.
What does a common nightingale eat during the breeding season? In general, common nightingales feed on insects. During the breeding season they prefer especially beetles and gnats. While females remain in the nest, males search for food in order to feed both female and offspring. Sometimes males might even bring small worms, larvae or caterpillars.
Interestingly, in late summer common nightingales change their food preferences and feed mainly on berries.
Interesting facts: Did you know that common nightingales have a very short lifespan? Usually, a common nightingale reaches an age between one and five years. Probably predation and habitat reduction are responsible for their short lifespan.
Songs of common nightingales
Although common nightingales do not look very conspicuous or extraordinary, their songs are by all means very exceptional. Its songs are very powerful and they have a large song repertoire. Their songs are rich in trills and whistles often ending in a crescendo. On average, one common nightingale is able to sing about 190 different types of strophes.
Common nightingales have inspired many poets, musicians and other artists in the past just by their songs. As common nightingales are rather shy and elusive, most people have heard, but never seen any nightingale so far.
Common nightingales sing almost at any time of day or night. However, at around 11 p.m. in the night males start to sing in order to attract a female to mate. At dawn males sing in order to defend their territory against other males. Therefore, songs in common nightingales can be distinguished between a courtship song and a territorial song.
Females do not sing. They only can utter warning calls. Therefore, if you hear a nightingale sing, it is certainly a male.
In the following audio you can listen to a common nightingale. I recorded this bird in the Treptower park in Berlin.
Interesting facts: Did you know that older males improve their mating success by having a larger song repertoire than younger males? Apparently a larger song repertoire attracts more females. As male songs might reflect the body condition, and thus, the fitness of a male, females might select for the best singers.
Common nightingales in Berlin
In Berlin you can listen to nightingales in several places. One area where you can listen to quite many common nightingales in Berlin is Prenzlauer Berg.
I heard the first common nightingales in Prenzlauer Berg at the end of April in the Ernst-Thälmann-Park. The Ernst-Thälmann-Park is a small park in Prenzlauer Berg with just about 30 minutes by foot to Berlin’s city center Alexanderplatz.
Although the park is so central, I could listen regularly common nightingales in this park. On one afternoon I was even lucky enough to spot a common nightingale. I was quietly sitting on the ground listening to the bird. As these birds are so shy I had to be especially quiet. Therefore, it was not so easy to prepare my camera to get at least one photograph of these wonderful birds. I think this common nightingale I saw noticed my presence. But it didn’t fly away. I felt very privileged that the bird apparently didn’t care about my presence.
Another good place to listen to many common nightingales is the Treptower Park. This park is located in the southeast of Berlin in Alt-Treptow.
While I visited the Ernst-Thälmann-Park quite frequently, I went to the Bürgerpark Pankow only twice. I became aware of common nightingales in this park only after a presentation during the City Nature Challenge. Actually, our aim during the City Nature Challenge was to search for bats. However, as the songs of common nightingales were so prevalent, it was just impossible to overhear them. Therefore, I came back to the Bürgerpark Pankow again on another day to listen to some more common nightingales in this park.
Another park where I could frequently listen to common nightingales was the Anton-Saefkow-Park which is located close to the Ernst-Thälmann-Park in Prenzlauer Berg. However, as they had a construction site this year in the park, at times it was quite loud in the park to listen to common nightingales. I was wondering if this construction site influenced heavily the breeding success of common nightingales in this park this year?
Once I heard a common nightingale in the park Volkspark Friedrichshain. There are several common nightingales in this park. However, I was very surprised on that day to hear a common nightingale on a tree close to a very busy street. Furthermore, as this tree was located in an area with no undergrowth and close to the place where many city dwellers spent their time in the park, I was wondering where this common nightingale intended to build its nest?
Citizen Science: “Forschungsfall Nachtigall”
If you are in Berlin, there is a wonderful project where you can participate as a citizen scientist. The name of the project is "Forschungsfall Nachtigall“ (English: Research Case Nightingale) and based in Berlin at the Natural History Museum or Museum für Naturkunde in German, respectively. If you want to contribute your observations of common nightingales to the project you can do that by using the app "Naturblick". With this app you can record the songs of the common nightingale and send them directly with the app to the project. You can find more information about how you can participate on their website (only in German).
I think it is a great thing to support this citizen science project with your observations. As it is a citizen science project, everyone can participate. You just need to download the app. I have written more about citizen science and why you will read more about this in future here on this blog in a previous blog entry.
So far, the researchers of this citizen science project could find out that the common nightingale population in Berlin includes about 3000 individuals. Furthermore, they could distinguish about 700 different types of strophes in the Berlin population and until now more than 2000 types of strophes in Germany.
If you support this project with your observations, the research team of "Forschungsfall Nachtigall" will have more data available to answer questions like, e.g., „Do common nightingales avoid light and noise?“ or „Do the songs of the common nightingale differ in different regions?“.
As we still do not know so many things about the common nightingale and other birds, I hope that as many people as possible participate and share their common nightingale observations. The season is over now, however, please keep in mind this project and read more about their work. If you haven't participated this year, you can do that next year.
Do common nightingales live close to your home? Do you listen to their songs in spring? And have you already seen a common nightingale? Let me know and share your observations in the comments.