Songbird Neuroethology Laboratory

Department of Psychology, BioCognition Unit, Centre for Neuroscience, University of Alberta


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Research in the SNL

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 in vivo electrophysiology and anatomy to determine how several species of chickadees perceive the categories in their vocalizations.



Click to listen to chick-a-dee calls by...

Black-capped chickadee, Boreal chickadee, Carolina Chickadee, Mountain Chickadee

( * Note: Chick-a-dee calls © Christopher B. Sturdy - do not use without permission.)

Research Facilities

Songbird Operant Conditioning Facility

The lab is equipped with 20 operant chambers designed to test auditory perception and cognition in small birds. Pictured below are the PCs and audio amplifiers that are connected to and control our operant chambers.

Human Operant Conditioning / Sound Synthesis and Analysis Facility

The lab has 2 walk-in sound attenuating chambers (thanks to a CFI New Opportunities Grant), and uses custom written software to control human operant conditioning experiments and uses SIGNAL, Syntana and other sound analysis software for bioacoustic analysis, signal manipulation, and synthetic signal processing.

2 walk-in sound booths 

Sound Recording, Behaviour, and Controlled Acoustic Environment Rearing Facility

The lab has 6 acoustic "mini-booths" that is uses for: (1) direct-to-disk digital signal acquisition via CF recorders to record bird vocalizations, (2) conducting playback experiments and (3) for rearing birds in controlled, acoustic environments  (funded by CFI New Opportunities).

"Mini booth" room

Microscopy and Image Analysis Facility

The lab also has a high quality upright microscope and image analysis setup (pictured below) and has acquired a fluorescence microscope and image analysis system (funded by Alberta Ingenuity and CFI New Opportunities, respectively).

Leica DMLB 2 microscope with imaging setup

In vivo Electrophysiology Facility

The lab has a complete extracellular and intracellular in vivo electrophysiology recording facility, specifically designed for working with small birds and presenting them auditory stimuli in a highly controlled environment (funded by NSERC and Alberta Ingenuity).

In vivo neurophysiology rig

In vitro Electrophysiology Facility

The lab will soon have a complete in vitro brain slice electrophysiology recording facility (funded by CFI New Opportunities).

Photo Coming Soon!

Histology and Anatomy Facility

The lab has a very well-equipped (cryostat, microtome, vibratome, dissecting microscope, commercial size refrigerator, -80 freezer, analytical and coarse balances etc.) and soon-to-be-renovated histology room (funded by Alberta Ingenuity and CFI New Opportunities).


Under construction - completion spring 2011 - Photo Coming Soon!


Field Sites

We have access to several field sites including the Kananaskis Field Stations (Barrier Lake Station is pictured below) as well as the Meanook Biological Research Station, Elk Island National Park and the Edmonton River Valley Parks.



© Christopher B. Sturdy, 2002-2013, all rights reserved
Last updated - 28-01-2013