Feathered Facts: 15 things you never knew about starlings, swifts and nightingales…


Does life imitate art or does art imitate life? This year's Brighton Festival celebrates, in as many ways as birds have songs, the vital crossovers between nature and the arts. Starlings, swifts and nightingales feature in a number of events this May and in this series of posts we celebrate our feathered friends with some fascinating facts…

  1. This years' Big Garden Birdwatch found that the Top Three most common garden birds in Brighton & Hove are, in order of most common first: house sparrows, starlings and feral pigeons.
  2. The highest densities of nightingales in the UK are found in the south east: Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Kent and Sussex.
  3. Between 1995 and 2008, the UK’s nightingale population more than halved (53 per cent).
  4. The song of the nightingale has been described as one of the most beautiful sounds in nature, inspiring songs, books, and a great deal of poetry.
  5. Southern England is the northern limit of the nightingales’ range. They breed in forest and scrub in Europe and south-west Asia, and winter in West Africa.
  6. The name nightingale is more than a 1000 years old and means 'night songstress'. Early writers assumed the female sang when it is in fact the male.
  7. Each year during autumn, flocks of starlings form across the skies of Britain, creating 'dark clouds' above fields, woodlands and reedbed, these are called murmurations. As seen annually from Brighton pier.
  8. Single males sing regularly at night to attract a mate. Singing at dawn is assumed to be important in defending the bird's territory.
  9. Homer (not Simpson), Sophocles and Ovid all referenced nightingales in their writings. T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land also evokes the nightingale's song.
  10. Other literary references to nightingales have included John Milton's sonnet To the Nightingale (1632–33) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Nightingale: A Conversation Poem, printed in 1798.
  11. Modern ornithologists dispute the facts behind the popular World War II song A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square (published 1939), believing it unlikely to be a nightingale and most probably a blackbird.
  12. Swifts are uniquely aerial creatures, spending almost their entire adult lives in the air; they eat, mate and even sleep on the wing.
  13. Swifts are considered the fastest birds in sustained flight, achieving average speeds of around 70 mph (peregrine falcons can achieve more than 200 mph in a dive).
  14. In a single year the common swift can cover at least 200,000 km, that’s the equivalent of circumventing the earth five times.
  15.  Swifts Latin name is Apus apus, from the Greek ἄπους, apous, meaning ‘without feet’. They have very short legs as they rarely need to stand rely on their wings to manoeuvre in their nests.

Explore events relating to the theme of art and nature

Facts kindly supplied by the RSPB.