Research in the Songbird Neuroethology Laboratory
Research in the SNL seeks to develop as comprehensive understanding of songbird communication by studying behaviour and the neural systems controlling behaviour. Songbirds, along with humans, are one of only six animal groups (including bats, parrots, hummingbirds, and cetaceous whales and dolphins) that are known to exhibit vocal learning. Furthermore, songbirds possess a highly-evolved network of interconnected brain regions controlling vocal learning, vocal perception and vocal production. As such, songbirds allow researchers a unique opportunity to directly study vocal communication at the interface between brain and behaviour. The SNL studies the cognitive, neurobiological and behavioural substrates underlying songbirds' highly evolved and specialized suite of communication behaviours. Current research focuses on vocal communication in one particular group of songbirds, the chickadees (e.g., Black-capped, Boreal, Carolina, Chestnut-backed, and Mountain chickadees).
Research in the SNL is currently aimed at understanding the cognitive, perceptual, evolutionary, developmental, and neural bases underlying chickadees’ perception of the acoustic (vocal) categories (i.e., note-types, call types) contained in their calls and songs, as a first step towards a comprehensive understanding songbird acoustic communication. The perception of categories is a powerful phenomenon that has been demonstrated in many animal species, including humans and songbirds. By sorting large numbers of environmental stimuli, such as songbird vocalizations, into categories rather than memorizing each new instance, animals can adapt quickly to newly encountered stimuli. For example, black-capped chickadee flocks rapidly increase their vigilance behaviours after hearing another flock’s communication call (the ‘chick-a-dee’ call for which chickadees are named), without having to learn about the particular novel call or the individual that emitted it. Rather, chickadees rapidly sort the call into a category representing “foreign flock” and modify their ongoing behaviour accordingly. In order to begin to understand vocal category perception in chickadees, researchers in the SNL use a variety of experimental techniques including bioacoustic analyses and operant conditioning experiments and anatomy to determine how several species of chickadees perceive the categories in their vocalizations.