Sleepless in Berlin: Nightingales flock to scruffy city parks

The urban landscape of Berlin may not be well known for its wildlife. But a descendant of biologist Charles Darwin has found the city is attracting one particularly loud bird.

Sleepless in Berlin: Nightingales flock to scruffy city parks
A nightingale singing. Photo: Depositphotos/Bearacreative

Sarah Darwin, the great-great granddaughter of British biologist Charles Darwin, was sleepless in Berlin when, to her “enormous surprise”, she heard a nightingale warbling merrily outside her window.

“It's very, very rare in the UK, so to be living in the middle of a capital city in Europe and hearing a nightingale singing outside your bedroom window is quite an extraordinary experience,” the Berlin-based British botanist told AFP.

The trills got Darwin thinking, and led to the launch of a citizens' project examining why the non-descript-looking brown bird, with its distinctive song, has been flocking to the German capital.

The project by Berlin's Natural History Museum, where Darwin works, asks city dwellers to go out and record nightingales' song with their smartphone and upload it onto an app.

Through the sound clips collected, scientists are also seeking to map out whether the birds take on “different dialects” in different parts of Berlin.

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“What's really exciting in Berlin is that, unlike for instance in England, where the population of nightingales has plunged by 90 percent in the last 60 years, in Berlin there's in fact a positive trend,” said Silke Voigt-Heucke,
who is coordinating the project.

Scientists estimate that the population has grown by six percent annually over the past 15 years in Berlin. There are believed to be between 1,200 and 1,700 nightingale pairs in the capital now.

Berlin's sprawlingTiergarten which is home to nightingale nests. Photo: DPA

 'A little unkempt'

While urbanization has forced wildlife out of most European city and town centres, in sprawling Berlin large areas of often prime land are still green.

But more attractive for the nightingale may be the German capital's general scruffiness.

“We keep our parks and gardens in Berlin slightly more untidily, and the nightingales need this,” said Darwin. “They nest on the ground, they need tthick vegetation to protect them from foxes, cats, birds, dogs.

“If you clear your gardens and have nothing but grass and the occasional tree, then there's nowhere for a nightingale to breed.

“So Berlin is very special in that way — a little bit unkempt — and we have to keep that. We have to learn to see the beauty in this kind of wildness.”

'Get lost!'

Take the 210-hectare Tiergarten park right in the centre: just steps away from the German parliament, the extensive park is home to between seven and 10 nightingale nests.

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One recent spring morning, a fox slunk past as Voigt-Heucke took a group to check if the Tiergarten nightingale inhabitants had returned from their winter hideout in Ghana.

Standing before an untidy patch of thicket, she sounded a single-tone long whistle four times, and immediately received an agitated reply — composed of a variety of trills, whistles and what sounded like throbbing beats.

“In the daytime, the message is aimed at potential competitors, telling them to 'get lost',” said the scientist of the loud riposte from the nightingale inhabitant.

At night, the nightingales' song is aimed at attracting females to nest with them, with some birds known to sing for hours.

The birds are attracted to the city's scruffy green places, such as Görlitzer Park. Photo: DPA

Bird dialects?

One of the research's early findings is that the bird's repertoire may be far broader than initially thought.

Voigt-Heucke said the catalogue consisted of 2,300 different so-called stanzas submitted as recordings by the public and confirmed by scientists but “the potential is that it could end up containing 8,000 stanzas”.

Scientists are now hoping to determine whether the birds adopt regional dialects.

“What we can already show is that some of these stanza types are more frequent in Berlin and Brandenburg,” the state that surrounds the city, said Voigt-Heucke.

“We hope that we can show that other stanza types are seen in Bavaria or in the Ruhr region.”

'Life changing'

While the citizen's project is running into its second and final year, Darwin said that she was already hatching related plans.

Sarah Darwin and her husband, Professor Johannes Vogel, director of the Museum für Naturkunde talk to Duchess Camilla of Cornwall during her recent visit to Berlin. Photo: DPA

For the scientist, the project has served a key purpose of “engaging people with nature”.

Over 18 months, “we've collected this extraordinary community of people who are celebrating the arrival of the nightingale and we are literally changing people's lives,” said Darwin.

“One man said to me: 'When I used to walk to work, I'd put my headphones on and listen to my music. Now I take them off and I listen to the birds'.

“This is the sort of a big life changing thing that people are doing.”

 By Hui Min Neo

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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.