Research News



Latest News

Nightingales in Literature

February 2, 2024
Sofia Chapman

Nightingales in Literature: Tracing birdsong through words

Across the British and global canon, nightingales have intrigued writers and poets alike. Its song has captivated and stimulated creativity; becoming a symbol of love, beauty and lament.  

Nightingale’s Song

Scientifically named Luscinia megarhynchos, nightingales are found in Europe, Asia, and Africa, migrating to warmer regions during winter. Males are recognized for their intricate songs, often used to attract mates and establish territories. The nightingale's song is a harmonious mixture of trills, warbles, whistles and flute-like sounds. Remarkably, the nightingale also performs mimicry, able to imitate other birds as well as sounds in their environment. Their diversity of song and sound aligns with the multitudinous nature of artistic expression, mirroring the artist’s capacity to draw inspiration from the world around them.

Its musicality is often compared to a virtuoso performance. John Keats ascribes transformative power to the nightingale’s song, its sound alone enough to transport the listener beyond their physical reality to an almost mystic auditory state, traversing time, history and physics.

Nightingale singing

Literary Symbol

In Ovid’s tragic mythology of Philomela, her unjust censorship is somewhat revoked by the silent expression of her woe through tapestry and her consequent transformation into the melodious nightingale. The nightingale flies that trepidatious line between painful lament and virtuous love, a trope that has carried through hundreds of years of mythology and literature.  

Shakespeare significantly uses the nightingale in "Romeo and Juliet"; nightingales migrate to escape harsh winters paralleling the lovers' predicament, emphasizing the fleeting, temporal nature of their romance.

Irrevocably tied to lament and love, Wilde’s tragic short story The Nightingale and the Rose depicts the bird as an artist, its vision and belief in a true lover who feels Love's extremes of pain and elation leads to the self sacrificing act of bleeding and singing to a white rose to make it red. Human love, in the face of the sacrificial death, is tragically shown to be shallow and unworthy of such an act.


Whilst the symbol of nightingales stands ‘immortal’ in literature, mythology and jazz, the nightingale itself has faced a 91% decline in the UK, sadly sitting on the Red list. With only 5550 breeding males, the main issue nightingales face is habitat loss. They construct their nests low to the ground, so require dense shrubs and hedges to protect against predation. You can help by providing thick hedges in your garden, avoiding the use of pesticides and herbicides in your garden and providing access to fresh water.

The nightingale is just one of many fabulous songbirds featured in literature and art. Why not share with us your tales of nightingales, the folklore you heard as a child, or even your favourite piece of literature that talks about songbirds. Get in touch, we'd love to hear it!

The SBS Team

If you have a species you would like us to cover on #theSBSblog, please contact us at or our Research and Engagement Manager at

get in touch