Current Directions

Species-specific song discrimination in songbirds

I am exploring the mechanisms behind species recognition in young songbirds. Based on decades of research, we know that juveniles learn song through several critical periods during development. But what is going on in the brain before the critical period of song learning? Other labs have shown that nestlings, and even embryos, can discriminate species-specific song. I am using behavioral tests, electrophysiology, and immunohistochemistry to determine the neural and ecological mechanisms guiding innate species recognition in nestlings.

Swamp sparrow (C) Ryan Schain

Past Projects

Individual recognition in a species with simple, unlearned calls

Individual recognition is widely argued as a factor promoting the evolution of vocal learning. Yet, many studies have shown the presence of individually variable vocalizations and, in some cases, discrimination of conspecific groups in species with unlearned calls. The aim of this study, as part of my master’s work, was to test for individual recognition in a species with simple, unlearned calls. I conducted a playback experiment with wild king rails (Rallus elegans) to test if their grunt, a simple, pulsed territorial call, is used in individual recognition.


King rail (C) Todd Pusser


Passive acoustic monitoring

Autonomous recording units (ARUs) provide a novel, non-invasive method for acoustic detection of rare, secretive species. However, previous studies have encountered challenges when creating signal recognizers to detect species with simple vocalizations. For this project, I investigated the utility of ARUs and automated detection software in identifying the simple calls of a rare species, the king rail, for monitoring its ecology and behavior.

Me deploying an ARU (C) Todd Pusser

You can find examples of the entire king rail repertoire by searching for my recordings on the the king rail page at Cornell University's Macaulay Library or navigating directly here.

Song variability in wild and domesticated zebra finches


Across individuals in a population, Australian zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata guttata) songs are more variable than Timor zebra finch (T. g. castanotis) songs. Using a combination of conditioned place preference trials and analytical chemistry within target brain regions, I conducted a pilot experiment to determine if differences in song variability might be due to differences in dopamine signalling. As part of a larger project comparing genetics and behavior, I also used behavioral observation to quantify the proportion of directed and undirected song in males of the two subspecies.