In a number of passerine bird species, mated males sing at dawn and this song activity peaks in the fertile period of the mate. We present the hypothesis that an important function of such dawn singing is to maintain the territory. We suggest that mate guarding and territorial defence are demanding and often mutually exclusive activities. Losing paternity is so costly that males give priority to mate guarding. Males therefore use the early morning period, before their mate emerges from the roost, to claim territory ownership. We report some preliminary tests of this hypothesis from a study of great tits (Parus major). Simulating male intrusion by a playback experiment showed that the resident male was more often absent from central parts of the territory, following the mate, during the periods of nest building and egg laying than during incubation. This supports the assumption of conflicting demands between mate following and territorial defence. From the hypothesis we expected males to spend effort in defending their territory as soon as they were free to do so. Consistent with this prediction, we found that male song activity was high before the mate left the nest at dawn, when she temporarily visited the nest during the day, and when she entered the nest to roost at night. A female removal experiment showed that unmated males, having no mate to guard, sang as much at dawn as mated males. Only one of the eight widowed males succeeded to replace their mate. We discuss some alternative functions of dawn singing in the great tit, such as attraction of own mate, a replacement mate, and extra-pair mates. We conclude that the hypotheses are not mutually exclusive, and song may serve multiple purposes.