Blackcaps: The little garden birds with a big voice

Small, shy, and chubby with a neat black crown, this effervescent bird sings its heart out in spring. Jack Watkins meets the Blackcap, also known as the March Nightingale.

During a walk in the woods in early spring, the ears need a moment to retune. The sun is out and the birds are busy. After the silence of winter, hearing them again is invigorating. At first, the brightness of their voices is almost overwhelming. Like an orchestra at full throttle, the sung variations of the individual species are lost in the sound mass. It’s only when the dial is reset that you really start listening.

Of course, most of the players turn out to be regulars: blackbirds, wrens, great tits, the inevitable crows and the distant, faint laughter of a green woodpecker. Still, there is a sound, not completely unfamiliar, but refreshing all the same, coming from about halfway up a tree just ahead. The sheets are now out, initially hiding the shy singer. His urge to sing, however, is unstoppable and, sneaking up to peer through the branches, he soon reveals himself to be a chubby little gray bird with the pretty black cap to which he owes his popular name.

The song of the black cap (Sylvia atricapille) has an effervescent quality, vaguely close to that of blackbird, although shorter and faster. Soft, yet loud, especially when delivered from an exposed perch, it is undoubtedly melodic. Delivered with apparent spontaneity, the blackcap is the Hoagy Carmichael of the Bird Kingdom, sitting in his tree, casually knocking out a few sentences and then pausing, as if to ask, “Is this good enough for you?”

A male Blackcap, Sylvia atricapilla, in flight. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

If that doesn’t give any indication of the pleasing quality of its song, its older names, such as country nightingale, false nightingale, and northern nightingale surely do (although the latter nickname partly reflects the expansion of its range in the North of England, where blackheads were once rare, in the first half of the 20th century). by John Claire The Nightingale of March, using another black-capped folk name for its title, also plays on the bird’s ancient association with the legendary singer Luscinia megarhynchos. In Clare’s sonnet, someone is leaning over the railing of a spinney, listening “while the black bonnet assaults his ears / With a song so rich and precocious”. The song is so moving that the listener mistakes the blackcap’s ‘sweet-jug-jug-jug’ for a nightingale and is bewildered because the latter, usually heard singing from deep in thicket, is not often heard until ‘in May.

The blackcap, however, is a warbler, a large group of sparrow-sized birds that, among those most commonly seen in Britain, range from garden and willow warblers to warblers less common white-throated and warbler. Many members of this family are admired for their singing, but another ancient name for the blackcap is king of the warblers.


Back to blackcaps

• Although the male has a black cap reaching the upper part of his eye, the cap is actually brown on the female and juvenile

• The garden warbler, with which it is sometimes confused, has a much browner color

• Blackcaps are the same size as robins, measuring about 5 inches long and weighing barely an ounce

• They are hunted by hawks and domestic cats

• The typical lifespan of a blackcap is two years, but the record age for a banded bird is 10 years, eight months and 15 days


Its closest cousins ​​are the garden warbler and the white-throated warbler, which could easily be lumped together as hedge warblers. The resemblance to the garden warbler is so close that Aristotle in his animal history argued that the garden warbler had the ability to shapeshift into a blackcap and vice versa. Despite its name, the garden warbler is rarely seen in gardens and has a low public profile. Its song is however also beautiful and, after its arrival in this Central African country in April, it is sometimes confused with that of the black bonnet, however more undulating and continuous.

The Common Yellowthroat often sings in hedgerows after arriving from the Sahel region south of the Sahara in May. The song is grating, almost moody, conjuring up images of someone sticking their hand in a patch of nettles. It deeply evokes dry summer days, the sun beating down on parched hedges and paths. The ancient name for the whitethroat, nettle vine, relates to its preferred nesting sites.

Because black warblers arrive earlier than their cousins, often in late March, they are considered by many to be one of the voices of spring. Most of these black warblers traveled, usually completely alone, from the western Mediterranean or North Africa. They will undertake their return journey from the end of August to October.

Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) nest with five eggs, Hampshire, England. Credit: Andy Sands/Nature Picture Library

Although the occasional blackcap wintered in Britain for a long time, until about 60 years ago it was rare to see one. However, the habit of wintering has developed since the 1970s; it’s not entirely a matter of summer visitors staying due to warmer winters. Rather, these arrivals consist of an entirely different influx of spring migrants. For years it was argued that they came from southern Germany and Austria, but recently the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) used Geolocator tracking technology to study the continental migration patterns of black caps. This revealed that those wintering in Britain typically fly between September and October from various countries, including many from France, but other individuals from as far away as Spain and Poland.

These black warblers are used to using gardens, especially those with bird feeders. They have shown a preference for sunflower hearts and suet products, turning to them after the supply of wild fruits and berries they feed on upon arrival has been depleted. Gardens play a key role as winter progresses, says BTO senior research ecologist Greg Conway. “Although the overwintering birds are all there after the end of October, they are not noticeable in the gardens at the start of winter. It is only in February and March that sightings in gardens tend to take place, coinciding with the harshest part of winter and its short days.


Know Your Warblers

• The black cap is classified as one of the Sylvia warblers, a family of small birds characterized by rapid movements and a generally rich song (other Sylvia warblers include Dartford’s warbler, common warbler and garden warbler)

• Willow warblers, wood warblers and warblers are members of the Phylloscopus family. They are yellow or greenish birds living in the woods and brilliant singers

• The rousserolle, the rousserolle and the rousserolle belong to the Acrocephalic family, which tend to nest in reeds and other wetland vegetation

• Grasshopper warblers belong to the Locustelle family, being rather stealthy birds with songs resembling crickets or grasshoppers


The BTO is still accumulating data on this and urges anyone who sees blackheads in their backyard to log sightings on the charity’s Bird Track site (www.bto.org/our-science/projects/birdtrack) or through its annual Garden BirdWatch survey.

What seems clear is that it is the blackcap’s ability to adapt to its environment that has made it the most numerous and widespread of all our warblers. Right now, the March nightingale is truly the king of chirps.


About Roy B. Westling

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