Research Interests

My research combines the fields of ethology, comparative psychology, comparative physiology, and neurobiology, using a variety of techniques including: bioacoustic analyses, behavioral paradigms (such as operant conditioning), immunolabeling, and quantitative real-time PCR (qPCR).

Songbirds as a comparative model

While songbirds may be considered a nontraditional model organism, they are a strong comparative model for studying vocal communication, because songbirds (along with humans) are one of few animal groups considered ‘vocal learners’. In addition, the neural architecture underlying social behaviors, including vocal communication, is similar in humans and songbirds, making it possible to use songbirds in order to study underlying neural mechanisms and associated behavioral and cognitive processes.

Vocal production and perception by songbirds

While most songbirds produce short, simple calls and long, complex songs, black-capped chickadees produce an acoustically complex chick-a-dee call and a short and relatively simple fee-bee song. My PhD research revealed that a relatively simple vocalization (i.e.,fee-bee songs) contains multiple types of information that birds could use when discriminating among songs. For example, in a series of studies, I showed that both male and female black-capped chickadees produce songs, songs contain sex-based acoustic features and chickadees can perceive differences between male and female songs. Read more about this work here


IMG_5041 BCCH Song IMG_5037
 Black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)  fee-bee song  Black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)
IMG_4767 BCCH Call BCCH operant
 Recording chamber  chick-a-dee call Diagram of songbird operant chamber
Image from: Weisman & Ratcliffe (2004). American Scientist, 92(6)

Pigeons as an animal model for abnormal behavior

Headbanging is one type of self-injurious behavior commonly associated with different forms of developmental and personality disorders, and mental illnesses. Successful interventions have been developed on the basis of considering self-injurious behavior as producing reinforcing consequences for the individuals engaging in it. My master’s thesis examined environmental arrangements that establish and maintain “headbanging” by pigeons. Pigeons were trained to bang their heads against a chamber wall equipped with a sensor grid and this headbanging behavior resulted in experimentally arranged contingencies of reinforcement.


Chamber interior Headgear PP37VT
 Pigeon operant chamber Pigeon with headgear Pigeon in operant chamber


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