The name nightingale is used to refer to two different species of birds -- the common nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) and the thrush nightingale (Luscinia luscinia). I have seen recorded in one place that Luscinia philomela is a bird that is also called a
nightingale, but I can not find any good evidence to back this claim. The closest I have come is an 1860's painting by John Gould for sale at the Early River Gallery in Grafton, Vermont. It is entitled Luscinia Philomela "Nightingale". None of the bird
resources I checked included entries on this species at all, let alone claimed that it was known as a nightingale. I did find a story recorded by Ovid and Apollodorus in which Tereus, King of Thrace, raped his wife's sister Philomela. He tried to conceal his crime from his wife by cutting out Philomela's tongue and imprisoning her. Some drama ensued, but the gods in their wisdom eventually settled things by turning Tereus into a hawk, Tereus' wife into a swallow, and Philomela into a nightingale -- thrush or common, I don't know, the legend isn't clear on that point.
A few other species of birds were once thought to be nightingales, or have been nicknamed nightingales because of their beautiful songs. The grosbeak is also known as the Virginia nightingale. The bulbul, famous in Persian literature for its song, was once thought to be a nightingale (it was called the Persian nightingale) but has been identified with another family. The Pekin nightingale (aka the Japanese nightingale) belongs to the babbler family.
I'll discuss only "authentic" nightingales in this entry.
Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)
The common nightingale is a small bird that belongs to the thrush family. They are best known for their exceptionally beautiful song, which is remarkably complex. They sing both during the night and day, but more often at night.
The length of an adult is typically between 15 and 18 centimeters. Their weight varies from 14 to 28 grams. The species does not exhibit sexual dimorphism -- that is, there are no significant physical differences between the male and female nightingale. The eyes of the nightingale are large and black, and they are ringed by white feathers. Their bodies are brown except for their belly and chest, which are cream-colored. It is not a particularly beautiful bird, other than its song.
The diet of the nightingale consits of insects, insect larvae, worms, spiders, berries, and fruit.
The nightingale inhabits deciduous forests in most of Europe (except the northernmost parts) and central Asia. During the winter they migrate to north and central Africa.
The nest of the nightingale is built by the female and is usually concealed in the brush, near the ground. The female lays 4-5 eggs which are pale green in color. It takes approximately 11-12 days for the eggs to hatch.
Thrush Nightingale (Luscinia luscinia)
The thrush nightingale, also known to some as the sprosser, is known for its beautiful and melodic song.
An adult nightingale measures 16-18 centimeters, weighs 21-29 grams, and has a wingspan of 24-26 centimeters. It is similar in size to the common nightingale. The adult male is very slightly larger than the adult female, on average, but the species is not considered to exhibit sexual dimorphism. The nightingale would not stand out in a crowd of birds. It's feathers are entirely brown, except its underside, which is covered in white feathers. The belly and chest may have brown spots or mottling. The brown of its feathers has a stronger olive hue than that of the common nightingale. It has brown eyes, and lacks the white ring around its eyes that the common nightingale possesses.
The thrush nightingale mainly forages on the ground for insects, insect larvae, berries, and spiders.
The thrush nightingale is solitary and territorial. They hide out low to the ground in dense undergrowth. When forced to flee, they often run rather than fly. Despite their solitary nature, they are not excessively shy around humans.
They are found throughout Africa and Europe. They migrate to Africa around August, and return around March. They like to make their nests in dense thickets. They frequently are found in wetter regions, such as marshes or swampy woods, although they make their nests on dry land. This is in contrast to the common nightingale, which as a rule prefers more dry areas.
The nest is built on or near the ground, typically covered by dense foliage. The female typically lays 4-5 eggs. The eggs are olive or grey-blue, with some red markings. The eggs take 13-14 days to hatch, and are tended to by the female only during this time.