My research examines the cognitive bases of animal material technologies, with a particular focus on nest construction and tool manufacture and use in animals. Detailed below are both my doctoral and previous research endeavours.
How experience shapes bird nest construction
My doctoral research focused on the role of experience in bird nest construction (for an illustrated overview of this work, click here).
Like all animal builders, birds face a number of decisions when constructing their nests: for example, where to nest, what material to use, and what type of structure to build. Although it is becoming apparent that experience plays a role in all these decisions, we still know very little about how birds 'know' how to construct a nest.
To examine the role of experience in bird nest construction, I designed experiments in the laboratory to carefully tease apart how the social and physical environment affect bird nest construction; specifically, zebra finch nest construction—a species that readily breeds and constructs nests in captivity (very useful!). I used video recording and behavioural scoring software to capture the behaviour of birds in unprecedented detail, and I analysed these data using statistical models. These methods allowed me to shed light onto several questions, such as: Does the early social environment affect the development of juvenile material handling and/or material colour preferences? Do nests—as social 'artefacts'—affect material choice by inexperienced birds (answer here)? Do raw-material properties affect bird nest construction (e.g., choice of material, resulting nest structure, breeding success), and, if so, do birds learn to avoid structurally unprofitable materials?
This work is currently being prepared for scientific publication—hang tight!
Physical and social cognition in New Caledonian crows
In Summer 2013, I assisted Dr. Corina Logan on one component of her project that examined behavioural flexibility in large and small-brained birds.
I worked with wild-caught tool manufacturing and using New Caledonian crows to tease apart aspects of how these birds understand the physical world around them and whether social learning plays a role in their foraging behaviours.
This work resulted in three publications, which can be found here.
A New Caledonian crow holding a freshly constructed stick tool (left—but hopefully that is obvious)