Territorial passerines presumably benefit from their ability to use auditory cues to judge the distance to singing conspecifics, by increasing the efficiency of their territorial defence. Here, we report data on the approach of male territorial chaffinches, Fringilla coelebs, to a loudspeaker broadcasting conspecific song simulating a rival at various distances by different amounts of song degradation. Songs were degraded digitally in a computer-simulated forest emulating distances of 0, 20, 40, 80 and 120 m. The approach distance of chaffinches towards the loudspeaker increased with increasing amounts of degradation indicating a perceptual representation of differences in distance of a sound source. We discuss the interindividual variation of male responses with respect to constraints resulting from random variation of ranging cues provided by the environmental song degradation, the perception accuracy and the decision rules. (C) 2000 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.