Perhaps they were singing in honour of Victory Day, the Russian World War Two veterans' beloved holiday. Like us, the Russians have a famous song about the nightingale: "Nightingale, nightingale, do not disturb the soldier, Let the soldiers sleep awhile." Wan-ting to know more about the little bird with the incredible liquid sound that puts to shame the best opera singers, I went to visit Stanislav Afrikantov, an ornithologist at Moscow's Academy of Veterinary Medicine and Biotechnology. Nightingales are his hobby but he earns his living as a vet and a new version of the dead parrot sketch was going on as I entered his office.
Student vet: "I've got a woman here who says her budgie fell in the soup. Dr Afrikantov: "Well, has it boiled itself? If it's boiled itself, there's nothing we can do." Student vet: "No, it's just scalded its feet." After which, with many apologies, Dr Afrikantov turned to me and got out his encyclopaedias and egg charts.
I wanted to know if it was true, as I had heard, that nightingales have up to 40 different trills. "Yes, absolutely true," he said, "and you can only hear them for two weeks of the year."
He told me that the bird I had heard by the river was the common nightingale of eastern Europe. With its red throat, it was not to be confused with the southern nightingale that mostly fails to sing in Berkeley Square or with the blue nightingale of China and Japan.
Few birds, except the crow, can survive in Russia during the harsh winter. Common nightingales are among the migratory birds that come in from Africa when the leaves finally burst on the trees here. The nightingales rest for five days after their arduous journey, then build their nests in low bushes by rivers and produce their eggs.
Dr Afrikantov pointed on a chart to some pebbly eggs, half way in size between the globe that the ostrich lays and the pea-like egg of the hummingbird. "The nightingale is a gentleman," he said. "He sings to serenade his mate while she sits on the nest." The recital continues for about two weeks until the eggs hatch, after which the birds have no time for music as they are busy feeding their offspring with ants, spiders and caterpillars. They fly back to Africa in August without even singing a farewell encore.
By some miracle of instinct, the birds return to exactly the same spot each year but they are faithful for one season only and, with the new spring, the male will usually sing for a different mate.
The adult male's repertoire is so wide that he can give an entire concert without repeating the same trill. Nightingales live for up to six years. The older ones, who know more songs than the young ones, pass on their knowledge.
Inevitably, Man has been unable to resist the temptation to catch them. However, unlike parrots that chatter happily in captivity, nightingales, being migratory birds, must be free. They die if put in cages. Normally, the dull sparrow-like birds are cautious but Dr Afrikantov said that when they were singing they got carried away and exposed themselves to predators.
At which point, the student vet came in again, carrying a tiger-striped cat. If you ask me, the beast was perfectly healthy. Perhaps it had heard the nightingales sing and come in for some information about these delicious, er sorry, delightful little birds.Reuse content