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Local and Regional Variations in Chaffinch Song and the Question of Dialects

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Within an area chaffinch songs show considerable variation, but most of them fall clearly into types. Three human observers showed a high degree of agreement about classifying songs from sonagrams, and cluster analysis by computer using measures of frequency and timing gave very similar results for three-phrase trill songs, though less good for those with four phrases. It is suggested that songs fall into types, not because variation is inherently discontinuous, but because accurate learning requires only a small number of repetitions of a song to be heard. With many fewer than this the song is learnt so inaccurately that it forms a new type, and only in the unlikely event of an intermediate number being heard will the copy be hard to classify. Despite the variation within an area, chaffinch songs in different parts of the British Isles have very similar general characteristics. There is a tendency for songs from Orkney to have fewer trill phrases and a longer end-phrase than those from Sussex, but few other significant differences were found and discriminant analysis by computer was only 69% successful at best in classifying songs into the correct groups. While several song types in an area may share features not found in another place, because song types are derived from each other through cultural evolution, there is no evidence to suggest that all the songs in one area have any feature distinct from those in others, as the word dialect might imply. Instead it seems that the various song types within an area get close to exploring the limits of the variability of song found in the country as a whole.

Affiliations: 1: School of Biology, University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9QG, U.K.

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