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Drs.  Meredith J. West     &    Andrew P. King (Roy in the middle).






Information for prospective students  


Rebekka Dohme,

My research focuses on the predictive power of reactivity in any form. Reactivity, the latter part of an action/reaction sequence, is the sole indicator of contingency. Learning requires the detection of contingencies, and reactivity determines which contingencies can be detected. The detection of invariant action/reaction sequences is critical to understanding consistent relationships between events, stimuli and individuals and thus a basic building block of communicative and social learning. In birds, I have found reactivity to predict flock dynamics that affect overall communication patterns, and in humans, reactivity before the first birthday to be predictive of word learning at 36 months.

In cowbirds, where females have been shown to teach males how to sing effectively through non-vocal feedback, I studied the female wing stroke as a prime example of reactivity. I demonstrated that small groups of females coordinate so that a single female provides the most reactions, presumably funneling male attention. I then developed a protocol to study reactivity in larger flocks and found females to consistently provide more reactions to their flock mates than males do, again possibly encouraging greater attention toward teacher females.

In humans, I developed a time-sensitive triadic analysis to measure reactivity patterns within infants, caretakers, and toys. Reactivity patterns measured in infants aged 5-14 months at risk for autism predicted outcomes of communicative learning at 36 months. This broadly applicable triadic approach has since been implemented in diverse flocks of reproductively active cowbirds. Using birds, I can test the predictive power of reactivity patterns by manipulating actors and reactors. 

Gregory Kohn, PhD.  




I am broadly interested in behavioral development, especially the developmental origins and reproductive consequences of variation in social behaviors. Social interaction shapes subsequent behavioral development by exposing individuals to different experiences with conspecifics. Numerous studies have demonstrated consistent differences in an individuals willingness to engage others, or sociability. While some individuals may seek out more interaction with a wider diversity of conspecifics, others may choose to interact more selectively. Group life requires individuals to continually modulate their behavior in response to changes in social context. The ability to successfully adapt to changes in context is known as social competence. Competent individuals are expected to respond more appropriately to changes in conspecific behavior. As successful reproduction often requires sustained and close interaction across contexts, social competence may ultimately reflect an individual’s reproductive performance. My research is exploring the developmental inter-relationship between early differences in sociability, competence and reproductive performance. In particular, I am pursuing two broad questions, 1) what are the factors shaping the development of consistent patterns of sociability, and 2) how do early differences in sociability scaffold the development of later behavior (especially courtship behavior)?

Most of my current research has focused on the social life and behavior of female Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater). Autumn sociability, within both juvenile and adult cowbirds, is consistent over years and across changes in group size and composition (Kohn et al., 2011, Kohn et al., 2013b). Within adult female cowbirds, variation in sociability is able to predict reproductive performance. Female cowbirds who consistently engaged in more social interactions during the fall displayed increased reproductive output (in terms of eggs produced) during the spring (Kohn et al., 2012). Successful courtship requires quick and appropriate responses to potential partners and therefore may reflect an individual’s social competence. During the breeding season, female cowbirds maintain monogamous pairings, and use a ‘chatter’ vocalization to attract and reinforce preferred males. Females who use their chatter more effectively maintain a stronger pair-bond with a preferred male and produce more eggs than other females (Kohn et al., in review). I uncovered that naive juvenile females who consistently engaged others in close social interaction during autumn, were also more likely to use chatter vocalizations in response to male advances, and maintain a pair-bond during their first breeding season (Kohn et al, 2013a). Altogether, these results suggest that early patterns of sociability reflect the emergence of competent courtship behaviors, and later reproductive output. Further studies will investigate how the diversity and predictability of early social environment shapes the ontogeny of both sociability and competence in juvenile cowbirds.

I am also interested in using the principles of general systems theory to develop statistical techniques for the analysis of social behavior. While systems theory has been an informative framework for both observational and experimental research on behavior, few statistical techniques have been developed that can be applied to interacting social systems over time. By using a combination of Markov Chains and social network analysis I am developing a novel platform for the sequential analysis of social behavior across both short and long timescales. These techniques will allow researchers to identify important controlling variables (usually specific behaviors) that play significant roles in organizing the temporal structure of social interaction. Further analysis can then investigate the development of interaction patterns by comparing these controlling variables across different ages.  I am utilizing these techniques to analyze the development and structure of infant-caregiver-object interactions from 5 to 14 months of age.


Sachiko Koyama, PhD. 

Associate Research Scientist

School of Medicine, Medical Science Program,

Indiana University

Faculty member of CISAB (Center of the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior)

Faculty member of Neuroscience Program of College of Arts & Sciences

Committee member of APAFSC (Asian Pacific American Faculty and Staff Council)

I am interested in mechanisms of communication and the influence of social factors on behavior. I have studied social effects on behavior in mice, Japanese monkeys and birds. I am currently excited about unraveling the behaviors of cowbirds and discovering how the cowbird uses visual signals in social interactions.  This wonderful creature is so small and of course everybody will think that birds are far way different from primates, but what I think is that “Oh boy, they are just like Japanese monkeys!”, which means they have very social relationships and dominance relationships among individuals, just like Japanese monkeys and many other social animals including humans.  In social animals, the maintenance of the group cohesiveness is kept (or tried to be kept) by confirming the dominance and intimacy relationships of each other by the frequent ritualistic social behaviors, just like the dancing behaviors of cowbirds.

In my previous work, I have found that sperm activities are different depending on social status in mice (Koyama and Kamimura, 1999) and such differences diminish by vomeronasalectomy (Koyama and Kamimura, 2003), which suggests the pheromonal control of sperm activities among male mice.  Female mice odors increase the number of sperm in male mice (Koyama and Kamimura, 2000), which suggest the pheromonal control of spermatogenesis by female odors in mice.  I published a book on olfactory communication in animals (Koyama, 2008) and I am very interested in continuing in this direction. We now know that such communication using odors can be possible in humans and birds too, although we also know that olfactory systems in humans and birds are not well developed.  Studies on the olfactory communications in animals like mice which possess acute olfactory sense and the full genome known will provide further understanding on olfactory communication and studies on animals like human and birds will provide further prospective on the possible hidden use of olfactory communication in such animals. (I developed a portable phase-contrast microscope in collaboration with P-Tech Co, Ltd., which is convenient to use in the field for the observation of sperm of wild animals. If your are interested, please contact me)

Another subject I have investigated is the history of animals in human culture. I published a book on the history of keeping pet birds and the history of street performances showing tricks in Japan, China, and UK (Koyama, 1999). In Japan, varied tits (parus varius) were used (right image). The illustration to the left is from a book on bird-keeping which was published in 1710 (“Yobukotori”).  This illustration shows how people kept birds in 18th century in Japan.  The large bird cage in the center is for varied tit with the special equipment for training tricks.  In the upper right side there is a cage for raising Japanese bush warbler (Cettia diphone) to which a child is giving food. It was common to hand raise Japanese bush warblers and train them to sing in the way fashionable at that time by using a tutor bird. The image to the left is a bush warbler and to the right a street performer showing tricks using varied tits in 17th to 19th century. Above the street performer is a photo of a sub-species of varied tit (Parus varius owstoni) from Miyake Island, so it has a little darker cheek and larger size than those of the varied tits of mainland.  In the aviary of my house in Tokyo, Japan.





I am now planning to expand this study further on birds with functional role like those used for hunting or kept to be used as meat or for laying eggs in human cultures.  We share our lives with many animals as the source of food, the help of labour, the guard of house, a method of transportation, and even as a companions. I am hoping through these studies to a better understanding of human beings through the historical relationship with other animals.  




Jennifer L. Miller, Assistant Professor Illinois Institute of Technology:


I study the development of communication and social behavior in complex social networks. A variety of species, including both human infants and nonhuman animals have to navigate and learn about their social environment during the first couple of years (and beyond) to become effective communicators. I seek to understand the social mechanisms by using social network analysis to understand the social structures responsible for effective information transfer and communicative development. 





Julie Gros-Louis, Ph.D. Assistant Professor University of Iowa

 Department of Psychology  contact: jgroslou@indiana.ed

My research integrates perspectives from ecological psychology and ecological developmental biology to investigate communicative function and to explore the origins of social learning. To understand communicative origins, it is necessary to study organism-environment interactions during development to reveal the rich set of environmental factors that drive change. I currently conduct research on communicative development in human infants to understand the proximate influences that produce developmental variation. Because I view social environment is a key mechanism to shaping and sustaining developmental change, I study social interactions between infants and caretakers. I use a combination of experimental and observational techniques to investigate potential moment-to-moment influences on communicative development. My prior research on wild white-faced capuchin monkeys and brown-headed cowbirds heavily influence my current research program. My dissertation research explored proximate influences on food-associated call production and recipients’ responses to the calls. My research revealed that when considering evolutionary origins of calls, researchers must investigate independently call function from the perspective of the sender and the receiver. One of my postdoctoral projects explored female nonvocal responses to male song in flocks, revealing group-level reactions to females’ communicative signals. The results of this study showed that it is important to consider natural environments and conduct micro-levels of analysis of senders’ and receivers’ behavior when exploring possible social influences on behavioral and communicative development. Taken together, my prior research projects influence the methodologies and theoretical viewpoints in my current research, with the ultimate goal of formulating a model of communicative development that focuses on dynamic interactions in organism-environment systems.


Grace Freed-Brown (with Sylvia),

Graduate student University of Pennsylvania

Winner of the 2005 Cheryl Burnham Buhler Award for outstanding undergraduate research


Grace's Thesis: Female influence in the Brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater): An investigation of emerging social ecologies


At  the Animal Behavior Farm, I became interested in female communication and female contributions to social systems.  Females are understudied because they are thought to be a receiver of information, not a sender and therefore do not influence the patterns exhibited by the group. Also, their behaviors are generally low frequency and hard to observe.  However, I believe that female sociality defines social networks in the cowbird. My work indicates that  females can also shape appropriate courtship behavior in males. My thesis investigating these issues.  My major conclusions from the study were: 1) Juvenile and adult females reacted differently to juvenile males.  2) The adult females changed how they interact around juvenile males when juvenile females are present.  3) There was individual variation in behavior in both juvenile and adult females.  4) The different social patterns of the females were not attributable to the juvenile males.  My studies also indicates that female behavior and social abilities are not innate.  I use directed graphs to investigate social networks and how individual traits may change a social network.  I hope to continue studying the role of the female, early social experience and its effects on juvenile and adult behavior, and how social networks shape development  by controlling the flow of information in a social group.

This directed graph shows how the individuals present alter the social structure.  The network on the left is a group containing adult females and juvenile males.  The blue lines indicate female-female (FF) contacts.  The red lines indicate male-male (MM) contacts.  The green lines indicate female-male (FM) contacts.  The thickness of the line indicates the number of contacts. The network on the right shows a group containing adult females, juvenile females and juvenile males.  By looking at these graphs we can see, and confirm with statistics, that adult females change the way they interact with juvenile males when juvenile females are present.  As we can see, there are higher activity levels, more FM contacts and a tighter social group in the network on the right.  There are almost two distinct groups based on age and gender in the left network, with only a few FM contacts.  These graphs reflect data taken from my thesis

David J. White, Ph.D. Associate Professor Wilfrid Laurier University

 Department of Psychology





      My work takes an ecological and evolutionary approach to study how the social environment can influence learning and development of functionally important behaviour and how cultural transmission can act as a system of behavioural inheritance. My earlier work investigated how social factors could modify animals’ inherent mate choice preferences. Studying Japanese quail, Coturnix japonica, I found that females show enhanced preferences for males that are observed mating with other females. In comparison, male quail judge females to be less attractive if they are observed mating with other males. Social modifiability of mate preferences has the potential to influence sexual selection pressure on mate choice and epigamic characteristics.

 More recently I have taken an interest in the product and process of social development.  The research program involves studying birds in large outdoor aviaries and manipulating groups using naturally occurring variation in social experience.  Go to Dave's website to learn about his current research interests.


Mike in the lab where he generally can be found

Michael H. Goldstein, Ph.D. Associate Professor Cornell University

 Department of Psychology


My research focuses on the development of vocal communication via the interaction of basic perceptual mechanisms with consistent structure in the social environment.  In both songbirds and human infants, early vocal behavior is an instrument of social learning.  By making sounds and observing the reactions of others, infants learn the contingencies that define communicative interaction.  Social and vocal learning, however, are rarely investigated as part of the same system.  My present studies view the infant as taking an active role in its own development and introduce new paradigms for understanding the origins of communicative skills. 

For example, the prelinguistic vocalizations of human infants consistently capture the attention of mothers.  In playback experiments, mothers use vocal cues over visual information to guide their responses to infants.  Additional studies reveal that infants use social feedback from mothers to build more developmentally advanced forms of vocalizations.  Feedback from caregivers thus provides reliable cues about the consequences of vocalizing.  These cues serve to facilitate infants’ acquisition of the basic building blocks of speech.

Mike at play  with a critical collaborator

In studies of adults and infants from 4 – 13 months of age, my research continues to explore the mechanisms underlying social influences on vocal learning.  To better understand the connections between later social and vocal development, I am also investigating how older infants use social information to learn words.

As a result of publishing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, my research has gained international attention in the popular press.  For example, you can listen to my NPR interview about social influences on vocal learning: (the file requires Real Player).



Todd with Mina at House Mountain State Natural Area

Todd Freeberg, Ph.D. Associate Professor University of Tennessee

Department of Psychology


Animal Behavior and Developmental Research Areas



phone: 865-974-3965


For further information, please contact me by accessing my website at the link below.

Tufted titmouse

Carolina chickadee

My primary research aim is to understand how social processes – at both developmental and evolutionary levels – influence communicative development. I am currently testing the relationship between social and vocal complexity in Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, and related species (the Paridae). Many of these species have complex and dynamic social structures and also possess some of the most structurally complicated vocal repertoires in birds. I use a range of techniques to understand social and vocal behavior in these species, from non-manipulative observations and recordings to playback experiments in field settings, to studies of social development in groups in semi-naturalistic aviary settings and in individuals in sound-isolation chambers.



A recent pubication:  TODD M. FREEBERG & JEFFREY R. LUCAS

Receivers respond differently to chick-a-dee calls varying in note composition in Carolina chickadees, Poecile carolinensis




 Marianne analyzing bird song at the B&O multi-use trail in Ridgeland, OH.

Marianne S. Engle, Ph.D.  Assistant Professor of Psychology, Muskingum College, New Concord, OH.

Teaching is my primary focus at Muskingum College where I have taught the following courses:  Introductory Psychology, Behavioral Statistics, Comparative Psychology, Learning and Motivation, and Animal Cognition.  I have established a small laboratory colony of hand-raised European starlings, Sturnus vulgaris , where I do collaborative research with my students.  My dissertation focused on the role of social interaction in the acquisition of human mimicry in starlings.  Starlings who interacted more with humans, learned more human related mimicries.  My current research focuses on how starlings use their mimicry in social settings.  Students in my lab interact with the birds, the birds' repertoire of human-related sounds is determined, and use of mimicry sounds is measured in various social contexts.  I am also interested in how starlings vary their production of shared species-typical sounds as a function of social context.

Marianne's CV



Brian the student interacts with Kirby the starling

Hoover attempts to forage


Anne hoping for a third monitor


--Anne watching birds


 V. Anne Smith  Senior Lecturer, School of Biology, St. Andrew's University, Fife, Scotland

Anne's CV

phone: +44 (0)1334-463368

fax: +44 (0)1334-46-3366


My research focuses on using computational methods to analyze complex biological systems. I believe in using computation and experimentation in concert, evaluating computational tools with both computer simulation and biological intervention so that a level of confidence can be placed on results obtained. I believe that computational methods for understanding biological function should be practical to use in real situations, by handling the inherent noise and error present in biological experiments and by using data that are practical to collect.

In my dissertation research, I performed behavioral experiments in both highly controlled and uncontrolled social situations, and discovered that freely assorting cowbirds produce a self-organized pattern of association. I used computer simulation to probe this complex system, and gain insight into how the birds self-organized. I also developed simulations of assorting animals to evaluate methods of measuring behavioral assortment in the laboratory and field.