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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FACES & VOICES: Nightingales Charm the Russian Nest




NTV lightened one of its news bulletins this week with a hilarious report about how South Koreans were learning to sing by putting metal buckets over their heads. The idea was that inside the buckets, they heard better when they were singing out of tune and thus improved their chances of becoming karaoke stars.


The things that humans will not do to learn to sing! I know because for five years I went through agonies having vocal training in Moscow. Yet, at the end of it, I could not perform a single aria with the beauty of the nightingales I heard singing down by the river the other evening. It was snowing and still they were trilling.


There is something peculiarly Russian about the romantic sound of the nightingale. The British have a famous song about nightingales singing in Berkeley Square but you would grow old, sitting in the square these days, before you heard one.


Not so in Russia. I have heard them often here and yet I knew nothing about them until I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Stanislav Afrikantov, an ornithologist at the Academy of Veterinary Medicine and Biotechnology.


With its little red throat, the common nightingale of eastern Europe is not to be confused with the southern nightingale that mostly fails to sing in Berkeley Square or with the blue nightingale that puts the karaoke singers to shame in Japan and the Far East.


It arrives from east Africa when the leaves are just coming out in Russia, rests for about five days and then begins singing while its mate sits on the eggs in the nest.


"The nightingale is a gentleman," Dr. Afrikantov said. "He sings to serenade his mate." 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 insects.


The birds, which build their nests in low bushes by rivers, come back to the same place each year but they are not entirely faithful and with the new season, the male may sing for a different mate.


Astonishingly, male nightingales have up to 40 different trills in their repertoire. The birds live from five to six years. The older ones know more songs than the young ones and so they teach them in woodland rehearsals. Normally, the dull gray birds are cautious but when they are singing, they get carried away and may be vulnerable to predators. They only perform in the wild. If you cage them, they die.


Not surprisingly, the Russians, like the British, have songs about nightingales. A popular one is appropriate for Victory Day: "Nightingale, nightingale, do not disturb the soldier. Let the soldiers sleep awhile."


Dr. Afrikantov loves to listen to the birds at his dacha by the Istra River. But there is another Russian saying about them - Solovya basnyami ne kormyat (literally, nightingales can't eat fables) - attributed to the singer Chalyapin when he was having trouble getting paid. In other words, cut the fine words and get real.


Dr. Afrikantov earns a living working as a vet, treating sick parrots. While I was in his office, a colleague came to consult with him about a budgie that had fallen into a pan of soup. Apparently, they are prone to this but the bird in question had got off lightly and not boiled itself, only scalded its little feet.