Published in May 1929 for The Ladies’ Home Journal, Edward Bok’s article entitled The Most Beautiful Spot in America provides a first-hand account of his vision taking shape and is a fascinating window to Bok Tower Gardens’ history. This is the second part of the article and illustrates Edward Bok’s fascination with the flock of nightingales he imported from England. You can learn more about the nightingales including their names here.
People ask if it is a bird sanctuary. Only so in part. The Sanctuary is intended for humans as well as for birds – a place of quiet repose, a place to rest and to think of what we are doing and where we are going. The motto of the Sanctuary, by John Burroughs, describes it truly; “I come here to find myself; it is so easy to get lost in the world.”
The birds have naturally found it, too, to be a place of safe refuge The birds who twice each year migrate across Florida on their way to the West Indies and back were not long in finding it, and come back each year going to and coming from the North. Some fifty birdbaths are in the Sanctuary, and these are used each morning by the birds drinking and bathing. Their song at dawn gives one who gets up early enough to enjoy it, a wonderful thrill. Some thirty varieties of birds are habitually there, and some remain all winter. A dozen nightingales were imported from England, and every day in the season can their golden notes be heard.
I was walking up the main footpath of the Sanctuary with a young woman who was widely traveled, when, approaching the nightingale aviary, a beautiful series of gold notes burst upon our ears. My companion started and said, “There is the nightingale’s song. I heard it many times in Italy, you know.”
I replied that it was the nightingale’s song, but not the nightingale singing it.
“Why, what do you mean?” she asked.
“Look up there,” I continued, “and see the singer.” And on a branch of a tall pine sat a mockingbird joyfully singing the borrowed song.
“Oh, the little thief!” ejaculated the young woman.
“But that is hardly fair,” I returned. “Remember the mockingbird has no song of its own and must borrow the songs of other birds to hold its own in the bird’s songs of the air.” Then I told of the first time the nightingales sang when a pair of mockingbirds rested on the roof of the aviary and listened intently to the air. “There is something new,” they thought. And of course, it was – for America; the first the note of the nightingale was ever heard in America.
The next day the pair returned and again listened to the nightingale singing. At the close of this second concert, the mockingbirds began and sang the song letter-perfect, a difficult feat when you consider that the nightingale has a repertoire of ninety-three notes, the largest of any bird.
But the difference can still be told, as was demonstrated in the middle of the dedication address of the President of the United States on last February first. The audience was as quiet as a cathedral, listening to the President when there suddenly were heard two beautiful call notes, and then came that superb deep trill that only the nightingale can give. The audience was amazed, everyone nudged each other; even the President looked for a moment in the direction of the song and for few moments, I don’t think one-tenth of the audience knew what the President was saying.
Mrs. Coolidge had gone to the aviary only half an hour before, and one of the nightingales had eaten a mealworm held between her fingers. The nightingale was evidently happy over the events of the day, as was every one of the 75,000 persons present, and evidently wanted to say so. That it was a nightingale and not a mockingbird singing was evident from the clear beautiful notes, for though the mockingbird can borrow the nightingale’s song it cannot borrow the nightingale’s throat.