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Variation in Trill Characteristics in Tree Pipit Songs: Different Trills for Different Use?



Transmitting information about singer's quality is an important function of song in many bird species, and this information should be useful in territorial interactions. Fast trills, being physically demanding song structures, are particularly suitable candidates for signalling of quality or aggressive motivation. We have evaluated trill characteristics in songs within a population of the Tree Pipit, a common European songbird with no sexual dimorphism, in which song apparently plays a key role in territory defence as well as mate choice. Two types of relatively fast trills (each of them in multiple variants differing in complexity) were commonly observed in repertoires of Tree Pipit males. Trill rates significantly differed among individuals, suggesting that these song structures may carry information about male quality in this species. We tested by playback experiments whether both trill types are used in territorial encounters. Only one of the trill types was sung by males in response to playback, regardless on the trill type played to them. In an immediate response to playback, they increased the frequency of use of this trill, and also significantly increased the trill rate in comparison with spontaneous songs. This confirmed field observations, suggesting that this trill is important in male–male interactions. On the contrary, the use of the fastest, apparently more demanding, trill type actually decreased after the simulated territorial intrusion. We hypothesize that the latter one is more directed towards females, and that while performance of both trill types may reflect male quality, they are primarily used in different contexts.