Housing Development Threatens Rare Songbirds

nightingale songbird

Story at-a-glance -

  • In the last 40 years, England’s nightingale population has dropped 90 percent
  • Just over 1 percent of the country’s nightingale population call Lodge Hill, a former military training site, home
  • A development of 5,000 homes has been proposed for the area, which would destroy the nightingales’ fragile habitat

By Dr. Becker

In the last 40 years, England's nightingale population has dropped 90 percent. Just over 1 percent of the country's nightingale population call Lodge Hill, a former military training site turned brownfield in Medway, Kent, home.

The site is now largely a region of scrub and thicket, such that, in 2013, Natural England designated the spot a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), which are among the country's best wildlife sites.

Nightingales, known for being secretive as much as for their entrancing song, nest low to the ground and depend on areas of impenetrable bush or thicket to survive.

Nightingales are threatened by everything from free-roaming cats to habitat loss, the latter of which is looming large over Lodge Hill's nightingale residents. A 5,000-home development has been slated for the area, which would destroy this important nightingale refuge.

Public Inquiry May Stop Development at Lodge Hill

While officials have touted the Lodge Hill development as sustainable community that would create homes for 11,000 people and jobs for 5,000, environmentalists say the environmental impact would be too great.

While developers included plans to move the site's 84 nightingales and other wildlife to other land, there's no guarantee the community of birds would survive the upheaval.

"These secretive birds cannot be picked up and moved like, say, great-crested newts, and there is no scientific evidence that the unexpected success of Lodge Hill's nightingales could be replicated elsewhere," as The Guardian put it.1

A public inquiry, announced in 2015 but delayed until 2018 while developers identify so-called "compensation sites" at which to relocate the birds, may prove to be the deciding factor in whether or not the plans move forward. Development in the area is especially controversial since it was given the SSSI designation.

SSSIs are protected areas in which development is not typically permitted, with exceptions only being made if the benefits can be shown to clearly outweigh the local and national impact.2 Martin Harper from the U.K.'s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a charitable organization, told Kent Online:3

"There has been public outrage and condemnation that a site of national importance for wildlife has been considered for development without public scrutiny. We are delighted that the Government has listened to these concerns, and has reached the only logical conclusion.

Through an inquiry we hope and expect that this development will be rejected and the future of this SSSI will be secured. The important issue of housing allocation in North Kent should proceed without impacting on nationally-important wildlife sites."

It's not only nightingales' fate that hangs in the balance if the Lodge Hill development moves forward. If officials allow homes to take over the supposedly protected SSSI site, other SSSIs, including those that are home to other rare birds, amphibians, plants and even special geological features, could also become fair game for development.

Nightingales Added to Britain's Red List in 2015

Nightingales were among a list of about 20 species to join the Red List of endangered British birds in 2015. Sadly, if their current rate of decline continues a study by the British Trust for Ornithology found the birds may be extinct in Britain within 30 years.4

Habitat loss in both the U.K. and in sub-Saharan Africa, where the birds winter, as well as along their migration route, have been blamed for population declines.

Muntjac deer, which munch on nightingales' woodland habitat, have also been implicated in the birds' disappearance, especially since the deer have no natural predators in the U.K. and have seen explosive population growth.

Nightingales' magical song was once a common backdrop in the British landscape, and conservationists hope to one day restore their numbers — and their song — to the region.

Why Do Nightingales Sing at Night?

Nightingales are not nocturnal, yet some of the birds sing at night. When researchers looked into this mysterious behavior, they found male nightingales sang at night only when they were single, i.e., not paired up with a female.

During the day, the single male nightingales also sang, but they flew around while doing so, likely testing out the edges of other nightingales' territory.

At night, the researchers believe, the males sang to attract a mate. Intriguingly, further experiments showed that female nightingales became extremely active at night, flying from male to male to listen to their song.5

If you've never heard a nightingale's song, you can do so now in the videos below. It's a recording of cellist Beatrice Harrison playing alongside a nightingale in her garden; its' said to be the first recording of a wild bird ever made.6

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