Comparative Cognition Neuroethology Communication Songbirds
Chris Sturdy completed a B.A. in Psychology at the University of Windsor in 1994 where he studied spatial memory in rats with Jerry Cohen. He then completed an M.A. in 1997 and a Ph.D. in 2000 in Psychology at Queen's University where he examined songbird bioacoustics, cognition and neuroscience with Ron Weisman. From 2000 to 2001, Sturdy worked at the Duke University Medical Center with Rich Mooney (Department of Neurobiology) and Duke University with Steve Nowicki (Department of Biology) where he examined the cellular basis of song production. In 2002 he was appointed Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Alberta, promoted to Associate Professor of Psychology in 2008, and promoted to Professor in 2013. He is currently Chair of the Department of Psychology and a member of the Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute.
Sturdy studies songbird communication and cognition in an integrative fashion, combining several approaches to understand the biological and cognitive bases of underlying songbird acoustic communication (See research description, below, or on the Songbird Neuroethology Laboratory website). Sturdy uses several empirical approaches, from bioacoustic analyses of vocalizations, operant discrimination paradigms and field playback experiments to electrophysiological and neuroanatomical techniques as well as artificial neural network approaches, with the long-term goal of understanding the behavioural, cognitive and neural substrates underlying songbird vocal production and perception, auditory perception and cognition.
Sturdy was co-editor of Comparative Cognition & Behavior Reviews for 6 years. CCBR is published by the Comparative Cognition Society and is an open-access, peer-reviewed journal that publishes reviews and critiques in the area of animal cognition spanning all aspects of research on cognition, perception, learning, memory, and behavior in animals.
Research in the Songbird Neuroethology Laboratory
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 anatomy to determine how several species of chickadees perceive the categories in their vocalizations.
PSYCO 299: Research Opportunity Program
PSYCO 396/398 496/498 (SCIENCE / ARTS): Individual Studies
Honours Thesis Research (2 year program)
PSYCO 381: Principles of Learning
PSYCO 403: Ancestral Health
PSYCO 403/505: Animal Communication
PSYCO 502: Professional and Ethical Issues
The SNL is always seeking highly motivated undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows who are interested in comparative cognition and behaviour, animal communication, auditory perception, and neuroethology, to conduct research projects (i.e., summer research students, PSYCO 299, PSYCO 496, PSYCO 498, honours, M.Sc. theses, and Ph.D. theses). Graduate students may apply either to the Department of Psychology's graduate program or the Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute graduate program.
If interested, please contact Chris Sturdy directly via e-mail, phone, or in person.
I have an opening in my laboratory for one or possibly two excellent graduate students beginning in September 2021 for students interested in pursuing graduate studies in comparative cognition and behaviour, including the neurobiological and developmental correlates of perception and cognition. The official application deadline is 15 January 2021 to be considered for admission beginning in September 2021, however, applications will be reviewed as soon as they are complete. Please refer to our departmental web pages for information about our department and our graduate program, and to my own and our laboratory web pages for information about current research in my laboratory.
I work hard to ensure that my graduate students have all the necessary resources at their disposal to complete their research and enhance their graduate training experience. My laboratory has recently undergone a complete update to my operant conditioning setup, and continues to maintain excellent facilities for investigating all aspects of brain, behaviour, and cognition in songbirds and humans. Moreover, my graduate students routinely attend local, national, and international conferences to disseminate their research findings as well as to network and establish contacts with like-minded scientists from other institutions. Importantly, my students and I publish their research in top journals, with many of my graduate students finishing with several publications from their time in my laboratory and move onto successful careers after finishing their time in my laboratory. See "SNL Alumni" section of "Lab Members Page".
Underrepresented groups, including women, people with disabilities, Indigenous peoples, people of colour, and 2SLGBTQ+ individuals are encouraged to apply.