Bird song (10) – Great Tits (4)

Male Great Tits react more strongly to the playback of Great Tit song if it is broadcast to them from the centre of their territories than from the edge. That’s not surprising, but it is interesting. And it opens up the possibility that one can measure something about song recognition by individual Great Tits through playing them different songs from the same position. In particular, one can look at how Great Tits recognise their neighbours’ songs.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to Great Tits, there have been similar studies of quite a few bird species.

If you record the song of a Great Tit (A) and then play that song to one of its territorial neighbours (B), from the boundary of their territories, the neighbouring Great Tit (B) will react by approaching the source of the sound (and appearing to be on the look out for the neighbour) and by singing more often – it has noticed! But if you play that same song to the same neighbour (B) at the opposite side of the territory, where there is a different neighbour (C), then Great tit B will react far more strongly. It’s as though in that small head, Great Tit B is thinking ‘What’s happening? Why is A over here? This isn’t normal! I must sort this out!

Forty years ago I would have avoided such anthropomorphic language but that’s what it looks like in the field. It’s difficult to see a Great Tit react to the playback of songs and see him all fluffed up, stretching to look big, displaying the black breast stripe, looking around in all directions, hopping from side to side, and not think that way.

And by recording measures such as the time it takes for the observed bird to approach within a certain distance of the source of the sound, the distance of nearest approach, the time spent close to the speaker, the amount of song produced etc one can turn that observation into some sort of objective measure of reaction.

And, of course, one has to standaise the ‘treatment’ by playing songs at the same volume and making sure that all are high quality original recordings, taken from the same distance. And the playback experiments have to be done at the same time of day etc, and in comparing the response to different treatments then one has to randomise which treatment is presented to an individual Great Tit in which order. And, you have to be pretty well-organised in what you are going to do and how you record the results. And you have to know where the boundaries of the territories are in the first place, and to recognise (colour rings help) the individual birds. So, if you’d like to repeat these experiments I’d start now with your preparations for next spring.

But once you are all set up then you can do a range of experiments; for example you could play the neighbour’s song and a strange Great Tit’s song (maybe one that lives 20 territories away) from the same place at the edge of a territory, at the same time of day, at the same volume and see what happens. What do you think does happen?

Yes, Great Tits (and other species, of course) react much more strongly to the songs of strangers than to those of neighbours. This is strong evidence that they recognise their neighbours’ songs. That tells us something about what goes on in a Great Tit’s head. One thing it tells us is that territorial Great Tits are listening, and remembering, as well as singing.

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6 Replies to “Bird song (10) – Great Tits (4)”

  1. Thanks for yet another very interesting blog on bird song science – brainy studies for a brainy bird. But if Great Tits are so precise in the mapping and recognition of their Great Tit neighbours why do they appear to sometimes counter sing with Coal Tits? Has any work been done on this?

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    1. murray - interesting point. I don't know. There is a bird near my garden which sounds like a Coal Tit but not totally convincingly for me - I'm wondering whether it is a Great Tit.

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      1. Yes Mark, you are right to be wary. I was unsure the other day, especially because I couldn’t make out the song post height differential for two birds singing on a wooded slope. Normally Coals sing from much higher up in the canopy than Greats.
        And then, as this series of blogs has highlighted, Greats’ songs can be notoriously variable. So it’s quite possible that my comment is based on a series of naff observations over the years.
        Firecrest versus Goldcrest song is another potentially dodgy observation too – it’s definitely been heard here on rare occasions. (Somebody once said to me, these two birds can use each other's songs -- need to look for the ref. for that or rather, I need to use bins and be patient.)

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  2. Marvellous stuff. The more Oxford researchers have discovered about Great Tits the more fascinating it is and Great Tits are such attractive birds anyway. To watch a male " all a bristle" with his neck stretched and his belly stripe expanded and prominent is something very special ( Even if it does remind me of Al Murrays pub land lord act). There are of course those who will say why do we need to know all this? The answer is simple for me at least, knowing and understanding adds hugely to the joy of the experience.

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  3. Shows what amazing abilities they have in their tiny heads.

    I think the anthropomorphising is an efficient way of expressing what you are saying, providing we don't let the metaphor mislead us.

    Re. playing A's song on the other side of B's territory: I think B is thinking 'he most likely crossed my territory to get there; I'll give him what for' !
    That's a good point about the time of day, volume etc. Field studies of animals are obviously very complex.

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