Scheme: Newton International Fellowships
Organisation: University of St Andrews
Dates: Jan 2013-Jan 2015
Summary: My research area is comparative cognition. Animals and humans have similar problems to solve, such as finding: food, shelter, a mate, and raising young. I am interested in how animals learn to do these things. Namely, how they modify their behaviour based on past experience, or from watching other individuals (called social learning). To study how animals learn I experimentally test how their behaviour of wild and domestic animal changes under controlled laboratory conditions. My current research is concerned with examining the extent to which birds learn how to build their nests. Although the notion that birds learn how to build their nests was considered obvious in writings that date back to 1867 by the visionary thinker Alfred Russel Wallace, the prevailing belief has always been that nest construction by birds is largely instinctual. To study social learning, I use the following experimental set up that consist of two phases: the observation phase, followed by the test phase. In the observation phase a pair of birds (male-female) that has not previously built a nest (the observers) watch another pair (the demonstrators) build a nest out of one of two different types of available material, during the test phase the observers are given both material types and I look to see if they copy the material choice of the demonstrators or not. By looking at variation in social learning in different species of nest-building birds that differ not only their relatedness, but also in the habitat in which they live, we can begin to understand the conditions under which learning abilities arise and to what extent they are shared with other species, including humans. Studying bird behaviour is important in its own right but human also have a long history of enjoying the company of birds.