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Dunnocks Discriminate Between the Songs of Familiar Individuals Without Directional Cues

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Playback experiments have demonstrated that many species of birds discriminate between the songs of neighbours and strangers, and also that they discriminate between familiar songs played from their usual location and from the opposite direction. The mechanism underlying this discrimination could be true recognition of individuals, or association of familiar songs with familiar locations. Here I used playbacks to test whether dunnocks (Prunella modularis) can discriminate between two classes of familiar songs; songs of neighbours and songs of co-males (males who share a territory in a polyandrous or polygynandrous group). Resident males tolerate co-males on their territory but defend their territories vigorously against intrusions from neighbours. Dunnocks approached the songs of neighbours significantly more than the songs of co-males, and they responded more quickly to the songs of neighbours than co-males. Responses to neighbours' songs were the same whether they were played from the centre of the territory or the boundary shared with the neighbour. This indicates that the mechanism underlying discrimination in dunnocks is not simply habituation to familiar songs from familiar directions. Dunnocks may either have true recognition of individuals, or they might have a precise ability to range songs which enables them to habituate to familiar songs when they are sung from both a familiar direction and a familiar distance.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge, CB2 3EJ, UK;, Email:


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