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Degradation of whitethroat vocalisations: implications for song flight and communication network activities

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Transmission of acoustic signals through the habitat modifies the signals and may thus influence their use in communication. We investigated the transmission of five different types of whitethroat (Sylvia communis) vocalisations, three types of song and two calls. Typical examples were broadcast and re-recorded in a whitethroat habitat with hedgerows and open meadow. We used a complete factorial design with speaker and microphone placed in different natural sender and receiver positions including high perches and song flights. Sound degradation was quantified in terms of signal-to-noise ratio, excess attenuation, tail-to-signal ratio and blur ratio. The results suggest that sound degradation generally increased with distance along a hedgerow, which means that birds here potentially may use degradation in assessing the distance to a vocalising individual. This is unlike the open meadow where the change in degradation with distance was negligible. Surprisingly, song flight relative to perched singing seems not to facilitate transmission of own vocalisations or perception of vocalisations from other individuals, and song flight vocalisations do not transmit differently from other types of vocalisations during song flights. One purpose of song flights might therefore be visual location by potential receivers and surveillance by the territory owner. Source level and degradation differed between the five types of vocalisations in accordance with their functions. Motif song and song flight songs used in attraction of females and/or deterrence of males could transmit through neighbouring territories, whereas the calls and the courtship diving song where a specific individual within or near the territory is addressed had relatively short communication ranges.

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