Who we study:

Mountain chickadee

The mountain chickadee is a non-migratory songbird broadly distributed in western North America. Mountain chickadees routinely overwinter in high-elevation regions with many months of average temperature below freezing and extensive snowpack. In such harsh environmental conditions, chickadees rely heavily on food supplies that they cache throughout warm months. The ability of mountain chickadees to remember thousands of food caches require outstanding spatial memory, which have been shown to be key for chickadee overwinter survival. Previous research also showed that mountain chickadees are not universally high performers from a spatial cognition perspective: there is variation in spatial cognitive performance among individuals within a single population.

Smart design to study avian intelligence

The research group of our collaborator Dr. Vladimir Pravosudov (University of Nevada, Reno) developed a unique experimental setup to test the spatial cognitive performance of mountain chickadees in wild free-living populations and determine variation in spatial cognition among individuals. Each wild bird first gets equipped with a lightweight PIT tag (which carries information about individual’s ID, similar to barcodes on grocery store items) attached to the leg band. Then, chickadees get accustomed to find food at “smart feeder” stations (installed ~ a quarter mile apart in the forest), which are an array of eight feeders with programmable doors, all kept open during the initial stage of the experiment. At the later stage, only one specific door will open to an approaching bird based on the PIT tag a bird carries. This setup makes it possible to determine the number of errors an individual makes before visiting the door they have learned will open for them, which serves a reliable proxy of an individual’s spatial cognitive performance.

What we study: 

The genetic basis of behavior, and cognition particularly remains poorly understood. It was long hypothesized that variation in cognitive abilities in natural populations is mostly shaped by learning and individual experience. On the other hand, phenotypic traits such as spatial cognition in mountain chickadees are likely under strong natural selection and hence should have a heritable (genetic) basis. With a support of recently awarded NSF grant (IOS 2119825) and in collaboration with the Pravosudov lab, we will gather information about cognitive phenotype and will sequence whole genomes of many hundreds of chickadees. To account for environmental differences across the mountain chickadee geographic range, we will run “smart feeder” stations at Sagehen Creek Field Station in California and the Mountain Research Station in Colorado. Ultimately, we aim to understand to the extent to which variation in spatial cognition in chickadees is genetically determined and what specific genetic loci and genes contribute to this variation. 

chickadee long