Artists and musicians swoop to save one of UK’s most celebrated but endangered birds

Just as Vera Lynn sang, the voices of nightingales are again being heard in Berkeley Square in central London over the hum of traffic and din of construction work.

The nightingale has virtually disappeared from Britain over the past 50 years, its population plummeting by 93% to fewer than 5,500 pairs. But now a chorus of nightingale events are being arranged by artists, musicians and filmmakers to raise awareness of the plight of one of the country’s most celebrated but endangered birds.

Birdsong was played on phones on Friday as the street artist ATM spent the day painting a nightingale in a gallery on the square, and more than 750 people attended a concert on Monday. 

The modest-looking nightingale’s remarkable, mostly nocturnal song has inspired writers ever since it was described by Pliny the Elder several thousand years ago. 

nightingale

Its song was played in Berkeley Square as ATM painted a nightingale on the tailplane of a Wellington bomber at an event organised by the makers of a new documentary, The Last Song of the Nightingale.

In 1924, the BBC’s first live-to-radio broadcast featured the cellist Beatrice Harrison playing a duet with a nightingale recorded in her garden in Surrey. The BBC continued this annual tradition until 1942, when the broadcast was famously abandoned when microphones picked up the sound of Wellington and Lancaster bombers en route to attack Germany, and the radio engineers realised the sounds could forewarn Hitler.

“When you’re out in the English countryside in spring and the blackthorn is in blossom, the nightingale’s song is just the most fantastic sound to listen to,” said ATM. “With a nightingale you never know what’s going to come next. They have a repertoire of 200 phrases and they surprise you all the time.”

Lee said the nightingale was the most inspiring of musicians.

“For me it’s pure song,” he said. “It’s an animal that is so utterly at one with music and the environment and using all the tropes and articulation and emotional capacity of a human musician, in the shape of a tiny brown feathered being. Its song is absolutely full of indulgence and decadence and serenity and sexuality and pleasure and connection and commonality.”

ATM said he was convinced that nightingales did once sing in Berkeley Square. “It’s all about whether there was dense scrub in the square and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was one singing here 150 years ago.

“I lived in Berlin and the nightingale’s song was a common sound. Unfortunately the modern ethos of park-keeping is lawns and open spaces. People are frightened of the impenetrable places the nightingale needs.”

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