Nightingales

NightingaleThe three species within the Luscinia genus in the Western Palearctic represent only one third of its total number worldwide; the remaining Luscinia species occupy the Eastern Palearctic region. Luscinia members are quite diverse and (up till now) closely related to the Erithacus robins and Tarsiger bush robins. Reference to both throat colour and robins in Luscinias is a remnant of the time when they were lumped with Erithacus robins. The non-true nightingales are all still classified within Luscinia on the IOC World Bird List for now – but for how much longer?

  • Bluethroat – Luscinia svecica = Swedish Nightingale – from Latin svecica = Swedish.
  • Siberian Rubythroat – Luscinia calliope = Calliope’s Nightingale – for Calliope, muse of epic poetry, daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne.
  • White-tailed Rubythroat – Luscinia pectoralis = Pectoral Nightingale – from Latin pectoralis = of the breast.
  • Rufous-headed Robin – Luscinia ruficeps = from Latin rufus = rufous, red, and Latin suffix -ceps = -headed.
  • Blackthroat – Luscinia obscura = Dusky Nightingale – from Latin obscurus = dark, dusky.
  • Firethroat – Luscinia pectardens = from Latin pectus = breast, and Latin ardens = fiery, burning.
  • Indian Blue Robin – Luscinia brunnea = Brown Nightingale – from Latin brunneus = brown.
  • Siberian Blue Robin – Luscinia cyane = Dark-blue Nightingale – from Latin cyaneus = dark-blue, sea-blue.
  • Rufous-tailed Robin – Luscinia sibilans = Whistling Nightingale – Latin sibilans = whistling, hissing.

Etymologically, Luscinia seems to be a shortened form of luscicinia, referring to either canens in lucis, singing in the groves, or quod lugens canat, the lamenting singer.

Linnaeus made no distinction between Thrush Nightingale and Common Nightingale in the entry for Motacilla Luscinia in his 1758 Systema naturæ. He used the old epithet of Luscinia to name the bird, which was used previously by Conrad Gesner in his 1555 Historiae animalium. It could be suggested that Linnaeus’s description is of Thrush Nightingale. Earlier, in his 1746 Fauna Svecica Linnaeus seems to make a distinction between what is then not yet binominally called Motacilla Luscinia and a bird he refers to as Luscinia Minor. The latter can well have been Common Nightingale as opposed to the Thrush Nightingale described in the main entry. However, in the subsequent 12 years he seems to have changed his mind and reduced the variety to just Motacilla Luscinia, geographically distributed across Europe.

Common Nightingale was not described until German ornithologist Christian Ludwig Brehm‘s 1831 Handbuch der Naturgeschichte alle Vögel Deutschlands, and thus a distinction was made between Common Nightingale and Thrush Nightingale.

Both species are ultimately linked in namings all over Europe and further afield. As a general rule, where Common Nightingale is the only breeding species, it is referred to as (Common) Nightingale and Thrush Nightingale as Northern Nightingale; where Thrush Nightingale is the only species, it is called (Common) Nightingale, and Common Nightingale is referred to as Southern Nightingale.

In the few countries where both are (common) breeding birds, their specific epithets are more descriptive. In Polish (PL) Common Nightingale is referred to as Rusty Nightingale (Słowik rdzawy), whereas Thrush Nightingale becomes Grey Nightingale (Słowik szary); in Romanian (RO) Common Nightingale is named for its nocturnal song (Privighetoare = one who never sleeps), whereas Thrush Nightingale is named for Greek Philomela (Filomelă), which is generally translated mistakenly as ‘lover of song’. In Ukranian (UK) Common Nightingale is known as Western Nightingale (Cоловейко західний) and Thrush Nightingale as Eastern Nightingale (Соловейко східний); in Russian (RU) Common Nightingale is also known as Western Nightingale (Западный соловей), whereas Thrush Nightingale is Common Nightingale (Oбыкновенный соловей).

Many names can be presented as sets of cognates:

  • BE Sałaviej; BG Slavej; CZ Slavík; PL Słowik; RU Cоловей = Solovej; SK Slávik – these names seem to stem from a proto-Slavic solvij, which means nightingale, and is probably related to words for colour, such as glaucitas (old-Slavic slavoočije) and isabelline (RU solovoj).
  • DE Nachtigall; DA Nattergal; IS Næturgali; NL Nachtegaal; NO Nattergal; SV Näktergal – singer of the night.
  • ES Ruiseñor; FR Rossignol; IT Usignolo; PT Rouxinol – all go back to Latin luscinolus, from the masculine diminutive of luscinia.
  • TR Bülbül; SQ Bilbili; AZ Bülbülü; FA بلبل – references go back to the Persian poetic images of gol and bolbol, rose and nightingale.

Two names are very different:

  • Hungarian (HU) Fülemüle (Common Nightingale; Thrush Nightingale = Nagy fülemüle, Great Nightingale) could be related to both IT Usignolo and TR Bülbül, since Magyar has taken on many influences from both the East and the West.
  • German (DE) Sprosser (Thrush Nightingale) – from DE Sprossen = spots.
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