The Nightingale, pp.160-163.

[Three Hundred Animals Contents]

   HAS little to boast, if we consider his plumage, which is of a pale tawny colour, on the head and back, dashed with a little shade of olive; the breast and upper part of the belly incline to a greyish tint; and the lower part of the belly is almost white; the exterior web of the quill-feathers are of reddish brown; the tail of a dull red; the legs and feet ash-coloured; the irides hazel; and the eyes large, bright, and staring. But if we consider how nature has favoured him in another way, we must again humble ourselves, admire and adore Providence, for that eternal and constant system of equity and compensation, which is so evident through the whole of the creation. It is hardly possible to give an idea of the extraordinary power which this small bird possesses in his throat, as to extension of sound, sweetness of tone, and versatility of notes. His song is composed of several musical phrases, each of which does not continue more than the third part of a minute, but they are so varied; the passing from one tone to another is so fanciful and so rapid; the melody so sweet and so mellow, that the most consummate musician is pleasingly led to a deep sense of admiration at hearing him. Sometimes joyful and merry, he runs down the diapazon with the velocity of the lightning, touching the treble and the base nearly at the same instant; at other times, mournful and plaintive, the unfortunate Philomela draws heavily her lengthened notes, and breathes a delightful melancholy around. These have the appearance of sorrowful sighs; the other modulations resemble the laughter of the happy. Solitary on the twig of a small tree, and cautiously at a certain distance from the nest, where the pledges of his love are treasured under the fostering breast of his mate, the male fills constantly the silent woods with his harmonious strains; and during the whole night entertains and repays his female for the irksome duties of incubation. For it is not, when the harsh and sometimes discordant concert of the other songsters is at full play, that the Nightingale wastes his songs to the astounded coppices; he wails till the blackbird and the thrush have uttered their evening call, even till the stoke and ring doves have, by their soft murmurings, lolled each other to rest, and then he displays, at full, his melodious faculties. 

“- List’ning Philomela deigns 

To let them joy, and purposes, in thought 

Elate, to make her night excel their day. 


   It is a great subject of astonishment, that so small a bird should be endowed with such potent lungs; as several observers have calculated, that his voice agitates with vibrations a diameter of two miles, or a circumference of six. Where is the player on our stages, whose voice could fill up such an area? This bird, who is the ornament and charm of our spring and summer evenings, disappears on a sudden, and as it cannot be ascertained where he retires, he has been placed generally among the birds of passage; but his wings not being calculated to bear him long through the skies, we cannot easily believe that he flies far away. The disapparition, or emigration of birds, is, as we have observed above, a mystery still concealed behind the awful veil of Nature. Nightingales are sometimes reared up, and doomed to the prison of a cage; but seldom, if ever, repay their keeper for his trouble. We have, however, seen a few instances of a Nightingale brought up and kept for several years, but we cannot avow that his domestic notes are so pleasing as they are in his wild state. 

   We cannot resist the desire of quoting here a translation of the beautiful passage in the Georgics of Virgil, where Orpheus having been deprived, for the second time, of his beloved Eurydice, is compared to the Nightingale who has just lost her young: 

“- Thus in the shade 

Of thick-leaved poplars, Philomela mourns 

For her lost brood, whom some sly-watching hind 

Has stol’n, unfeather’d, from the nest. – All night, 

Perch’d on the bough, she plaintive sings, and fills 

The wide-extended woods with melancholy strains. 


   The following lines, from the 4th book of the Paradise Lost, are stamped with Milton’s usual sublimity of thought, and boldness of expression: 

“- Beast and bird 

They to their grassy couch, these to their nests 

Were slunk; all, but the wakeful Nightingale: 

She all night long her am’rous descant sung; 

Silence was pleased -” 

   The Virginia Nightingale is not much less than the common black bird: what distinguishes him particularly is the crest with which his head is adorned; it is a tuft of feathers of scarlet colour, which obeys the will of the bird; the whole body is of the same tint except the tail which is much fainter. This bird must be endowed by nature with a certain share of courage and audacity, for when he sees his image in a glass, mistaking it for a rival or an enemy, he makes several strange gesticulations, accompanied with a hissing noise, lowering his crest, setting up his tail like a peacock, shaking his wings, and striking the looking glass with his bill. 

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