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Habituation and song repertoires in the great tit

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This paper is concerned with the idea that the song repertoires of passerine birds are an evolutionary adaptation to reduce habituation in listeners. In an experiment involving 16 territorial males I played either a single song or a repertoire of songs for 15 two-min trials through a single loudspeaker near the edge of the territory. In a second experiment with 10 birds I played the songs through one of two loudspeakers in different parts of the territory, alternating between loudspeakers on successive trials. The birds tended to habituate more rapidly to single song playback than to repertoires. In the second experiment the overall level of habituation was lower and the difference between the two treatments was less marked.

Two features of song repertoire organisation are consistent with the habituation hypothesis (1) the avoidance of low recurrence intervals in switches between song types, and (2) the fact that within repertoire variability is as great or greater than between repertoire varability.

The main problem with the habituation hypothesis is that habituation by listeners does not seem to be adaptive, so it is not clear why they should habituate. I suggest a hypothesis. Intruders may assess the density of birds in an area by listening to songs, so that habituation may be a mechanism by which this density assessment is achieved. Repertoires could be a mechanism by which resident birds cheat, through increasing the apparent density of singing birds.

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Krebs, J.R. Habituation and song repertoires in the great tit. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 1, 215–227 (1976).

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