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Nature vs. nurture: the talk in birdtown

For most people, the chirping of birds is the language of springtime. For us, birdsong hints of unfolding leaves, blooming gardens, whispering breezes. But what are these chatty birds really gossiping about? Well, it’s not necessarily that poetic.

IU’s Meredith West is professor of psychology and biology, and along with her post-doctoral student, Dave White, she tells us all about what those birds are really saying, how their social and cognitive capacities have evolved to deal with the predictable and unpredictable features of their ecology. West studies bird language and behavior at her aviaries just north of Bloomington. Much of her work has focused on starlings and their ability to mimic the sounds around them, and the behavior of cowbirds, whose parents employ a sort of nanny system. That is, they lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species to be hatched and raised. So the question here is, how do they know they’re cowbirds?

Listen to the entire conversation or listen by topic:

Read more on West's research at these archival HP sites:
Reproductive success of the cowbird
Mozart's starling: Salutations from 'one upstart species to another'

Listen to other IU Home Pages "Conversations Online"

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Publication date: April 26, 2002
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