Birds have impressive cognitive abilities, which has lead some researchers to suggest that certain species of birds could be ‘feathered apes’. We combine techniques from experimental psychology and neuroscience to understand the interaction between natural selection on avian behaviour and the evolution of the underlying cognitive and neural mechanisms. We use a wide variety of different species, both in field and laboratory studies.
Candy Rowe works on ‘receiver psychology’, and how cognitive abilities have shaped the evolution of communication. She is particularly interested in how birds process sensory information from multiple sensory modalities simultaneously, and the knock-on effects for animal signals. She also now works on dietary cognition, and aims to understand how birds learn to balance nutrients and toxins in their diets. This has lead to collaboration with Melissa Bateson, who has a long-standing research interest in risk-sensitive foraging, using operant technology to test optimal foraging models. Melissa also now uses avian cognition as a model system to study affective state in animals, with the aim of improving the welfare of laboratory and farm animals.
Tom Smulders’ research links neuroscience, cognition and behaviour together, through the study of spatial cognition in birds. He uses the food hoarding behaviour of some bird species to investigate cognitive and neural specialisation required to remember where (and what and when) food was hidden. He uses a range of techniques for his work, including behavioural assays, field work, anatomical measurements and electrophysiological recording. Tim Boswell also focuses on the neural bases of behaviour, focussing on how seasonality affects behaviour and physiology, and how hormones regulate the intake of food by birds. He uses a number of techniques, including the use of functional genomic technologies, to identify and monitor neuroendocrine pathways in birds, which significantly differ from mammals in their effects on behaviour.
These researchers form part of a larger grouping (including Richard Bevan, Mark Whittingham) that has been successful in attracting funding from the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) for a suite of climate-controlled laboratories for behavioural and physiological studies on birds. This will allow us to further integrate our research interests in state-dependent foraging, and the potential impact of climate change on avian behaviour.