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Cultural Evolution in Chaffinch Song

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A detailed study has been made of the song types of male chaffinches in the Orkney Islands. Only about 50 pairs of chaffinches nest there and these are mainly concentrated in three woods, with isolated pairs in a number of other places. Recordings of 41 individuals showed that songs fell clearly into distinct types, 16 of which were discovered. Some song types were peculiar to a single individual, while others occurred in the repertoires of many birds. Most were markedly more common in one wood than in others. The most noticeable variation within a song type was in the number of repetitions of syllables in a phrase. This varied significantly between individuals, though not between different woods; variation within an individual was also great. Comparisons between song types suggested ways in which these had diverged during the course of cultural evolution. The main changes seem to have occurred by minor modification of syllables, by changes in the number of repetitions of syllables, by the addition or omission of sections and by the recombination of sections from different song types. Evidence from the variability and distribution of song types argues against song learning in this species having evolved because it enables individuals to transmit information about their identity or about the locality or kinship group to which they belong. Instead it is suggested that song learning arose as a means of achieving a complex vocal output and that the distribution of song types arises partly because mistakes are sometimes made in copying and partly because some individuals disperse more widely than others after song learning.

Affiliations: 1: Ethology & Neurophysiology Group, School of Biology, University of Sussex, Brighton, U.K.


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