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Neural basis and cognition of nest building in birds (BIRDNEST)
Start date: Oct 1, 2014, End date: Sep 30, 2016 PROJECT  FINISHED 

"How do birds know what kind of a nest to build? Building requires physical skills such as choice and manipulation of nest material, but the role of cognition in this apparently complex behaviour is unknown: invertebrates such as wasps can build nests by following simple rules whereas nest building by primates requires learning. Bird brains are functionally similar to those of mammals, and birds have other impressive cognitive abilities including spatial and episodic-like memory as well as tool manufacture. My aim is to understand the neural basis of building behaviour and how birds gain building skills. I will use zebra finches in the laboratory to study experimentally where in the brain nest building ‘occurs’ and whether experience chances building behaviour and related neural activity, i.e., whether building has to be practised. I will map neural activity in the brain using immediate early gene expression. I will further study the links between brain and behaviour by examining the division of labour between zebra finch males that build the nest structure and females that line the nest: I will investigate whether these sex differences in building behaviour are coupled with differences in their neural underpinning, and whether they are plastic (respond to hormonal manipulation). This project will shed light into the relationship between physical skills and cognition as well as that between cognitive and behavioural ‘complexity’. It will also contribute to the question how and why cognitive abilities evolve. I have a strong background in evolutionary ecology and behavioural experiments with birds. Behavioural experiments are the corner stone of this proposal but with the component of neurobiology and cognition research, which will give me new theoretical and methodological knowledge. At the same time, my background will help in bringing evolutionary perspective to the work and in communicating the results to a wider audience."

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