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Nightingale, The (1932)


Main image of Nightingale, The (1932)
For Secrets of Nature
35mm, black and white, 9 mins
Production CompanyBritish Instructional Films

The nightingale and its song, its habitat, nest eggs and young.

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In the early years of cinema, birds in flight were hard to film with heavy and immobile cameras. Therefore most early bird films were, like early bird photography, focused on nests where one could station a camera and know that a bird would appear.

The nightingale is celebrated for its song and its habit of singing by night, though, as the film points out, the birds (it is only the males that sing) are happy to sing by day as well. The film mentions the song and plays a rather unimpressive snatch of it on its soundtrack, but its subject and its lasting value lies in the sequences of adult nightingales visiting their nest and feeding their young - at one point the commentary asks "Who would think that next year these beaks will produce songs to make lovers dream and to drive poets into ecstasies of poetry?".

Nightingale nests are hard to find and often densely hidden in dark tangles of vegetation. The filmmakers have found a relatively open nest that allows the camera to see much of the activity of chick feeding. A nearby - we assume - perch on a twig also allowed extended sequences of birds, their beaks crammed with food, stopping en route to their young. Nightingales are secretive and skulking breeders, and very few birdwatchers will have seen the birds as clearly as they are shown in the film.

In recent years the nightingale has declined in Britain. Each spring there are now around 7,500 singing males; they are most common in Kent, Sussex and East Anglia. A robin rather than a nightingale is likely to be the bird that sang in Berkeley Square, as the popular song reported. The film explicitly compares the nightingale and the robin, a commoner bird , happier in cities, and which also sings at night.

Tim Dee

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Video Clips
1. Just outside Oxford (2:01)
Secrets of Nature (1922-33)