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The thrill of the trill: How to spot a nightingale in Berlin

For a brief spell each spring, Berlin nights fill with the strange and haunting songs of the nightingale – you just have to know how to find one.

Illustration: Emma Taggart

I remember my first time. It was in Tiergarten, on a warm spring evening years ago. I was out walking with a friend. All of a sudden we stopped, transfixed. An amazing sound was coming from a nearby bush: cascades of trills, piercing whistles and ethereal, haunting notes unlike anything I had heard before. A bird was singing. But what bird sings like that? We peered at the bush, but the sky was too dark and the foliage too dense. Determined to discover the singer, I recorded the sound, and on returning home, I sleuthed online. We had heard a nightingale.

Urban nightingales are bolder than their country brethren.

Until that night, the bird had seemed to me more legend than real, the stuff of art and poetry rather than life itself. Romeo and Juliet, arguing at dawn over whether they had heard a nightingale or a lark. The drunken nightingales of the great Persian poet Hafez; the “merry nightingale” of the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge; the “immortal bird” of his gloomier compatriot, John Keats. A fascination with nightingales links humans across time and space and language, connecting us to the cultures and myths of peoples who lived thousands of years ago, and those who, today, live thousands of kilometres apart. The birds are fabled by writers from Sappho to Borges, and from London to Kyiv to Tehran. In Tiergarten, I found out why.

For a big city, Berlin is astonishingly hospitable to wildlife. Beavers gnaw on trees along the banks of the Landwehrkanal, raccoons eat mussels in the pools of Tiergarten, foxes roam the streets, hedgehogs rootle around the abandoned train tracks of Gleisdreieck. Scores of goshawks live in the parks and cemeteries; hundreds of mandarin ducks disport themselves in rivers and streams, flaunting their magnificent plumage. And in spring and summer, the city becomes a home for thousands of nightingales, scientifically known as Luscinia megarhynchos. 

Flocking to Berlin

“Berlin is the stronghold of nightingales. There are a good 1,500 nightingale territories here, more than in any other German city,” the city’s wildlife officer, Derk Ehlert, told Tagesspiegel last year. Nightingales are migratory, spending the winters in sub-Saharan Africa and arriving in Berlin in mid April. Males arrive first, and sing to establish territories and attract females. Often, a male will return to the same spot and sing from the same twig of the same tree, year after year. Silke Kipper, a scientist who studied nightingales in Berlin for more than two decades and the author of the 2022 book Die Nachtigall: Ein legendärer Vogel und sein Gesang (“The Nightingale: A Legendary Bird and Its Song”), says that she finds the moment of their annual return to Berlin almost unbearably poignant as she thinks of the length of the journey – more than 6,000 kilometres – and all the dangers the birds encounter along the way. 

For a big city, Berlin is astonishingly hospitable to wildlife.

Nightingales are not much to look at: they are small and leggy, with reddish-brown backs and grey chests. If you saw one hopping on the ground, you probably wouldn’t glance at it twice. Instead, the renown of these birds comes from their huge musical repertoire coupled with their tremendous vocal power. An adult male nightingale can produce a sound of 95 decibels – equivalent to an electric drill – and may have more than 300 song phrases at his disposal, yet he weighs less than a stack of three one-euro coins. Almost 2,000 years ago, the Greco-Roman philosopher and historian Plutarch told of a man who, on plucking a nightingale and finding little to eat, exclaimed, “Nothing but a voice!”

Photo: IMAGO / imagebroker

And what a voice it is. By human standards, the songs of the nightingale are not tuneful, but something altogether stranger: more medley than melody, with a short silence after each pulsating, metallic phrase. As the musician David Rothenberg remarks in his book Nightingales in Berlin: Searching for the Perfect Sound, the song is, “weird…detached phrases…funky contrasting noises…an unusual rhythmic assault. I had no doubt that it was music, but a foreign music, another species’ groove…”. But then, as Rothenberg rightly points out, the song has not evolved to please human ears. 

“Nightingale” comes from the Old English for “night singer”, yet the birds also sing during the day – just with a different rhythm. The daytime song, which tends to be shorter and less varied, seems aimed at rivals: males that sing the most during the day generally experience fewer intrusions into their territories than less ardent singers. In contrast, the nocturnal song is an act of pure seduction: an as-yet-unpaired male tries to lure down females who may be flying overhead. It’s a costly business: the poor fellow loses weight while he warbles the night away and has to eat more during daylight hours to compensate. Once he has found a mate, he generally stops singing after dark, resuming for just a few nights when his partner is laying her eggs. For that reason, the night is wild with song for only a short spell at the end of April and the beginning of May – so go hear it while you can. 

Bird Overheard

To have the best chance of success, you need to go to places that the birds like – typically a shrubby area full of low bushes with an open space or clearing nearby. (Because nightingales nest on or near the ground, they are particularly partial to thickets of stinging nettles, which help to protect them from marauders like foxes or cats.) Though there are never any guarantees, Berlin has many spots where you might luck out and hear a nightingale. I have heard them in Volkspark Humboldthain, along the Landwehrkanal near Urbanhafen where the swans live, in Viktoriapark, in Gleisdreieck, especially along the edge of the garden that belongs to the Technikmuseum, on the Fischerinsel and near the Garten der Welt, in Marzahn. Rothenberg found them in Treptower Park, where they were also the focus of Kipper’s studies at the Freie Universität Berlin, and in Volkspark Hasenheide. 

An adult male nightingale can produce a sound of 95 decibels

As well as these spots, Berliner Nachtigall, a German-language information booklet produced by the Museum für Naturkunde, recommends the park of Schloss Charlottenburg, Volkspark Friedrichshain and the banks of the Teltowkanal, as well as places further afield in Spandau, Pankow and Marzahn. You will also have better luck if the evening is still: birds, in general, do not whistle in the wind. Surprisingly, you may have a more memorable experience in the city than in places more remote. Urban nightingales are bolder than their country brethren and sing louder so as to be heard over the urban noise of cars and trains, sirens and parties. (For those wondering, female nightingales don’t sing, but they do make a variety of errps, tacc taccs, fiep-fiep-fieps, and other calls.) 

To be sure of what you’re hearing, you could join a tour led by the Museum für Naturkunde – several are planned for this spring. Or, if you want to venture out on your own, midnight is a good time to start listening. By that time, the song thrushes – one of the few birds that could be confused with a nightingale, not least because thrushes sometimes mimic nightingale songs – will have gone to sleep, and the blackbirds, heralds of the dawn, will not yet be awake. Then, when the night fills with a throbbing, trembling, alien music, the odds are on that you are eavesdropping on a nightingale.