Building for a changing world

Supervisors: Susan Healy, Simone Meddle

Project Description:
It may seem obvious that a bird’s nest plays an important role in reproduction. For example, the eggs or young in a nest that is exposed to predators, in a nest that gets too wet or too cold or is too loosely attached to a branch are unlikely to survive.  How does a bird ‘know’ where to build its nest, what materials to use and what form it should take?  For many, the answer is that bird nests are the product of “instinct”. By using zebra finches, Taeniopygia guttata, Healy (St Andrews) and Meddle (Edinburgh) have recently overturned this long-standing belief with data that show that individual birds vary in the nests they build, depending on the environment they experience.  Furthermore, the birds’ experience with nest materials of different physical structure influences subsequent material choice, the way in which builders handle nest material changes depending on the nest box into which they must manoeuvre the material and birds will choose materials based on the success of a previous reproductive attempt. Blue tits building in St Andrews and zebra finches building in the lab will enable the student to couple observational field data with experimental manipulations of the birds’ behaviour in the laboratory, to determine the responses birds make to their environment: do they build different nests in warmer temperatures? if so, do these nests affect the builder’s reproductive success? Laboratory manipulations of temperature will be conducted at Deakin, Victoria, Australia in collaboration with Prof Kate Buchanan, where the role of early-life experience on subsequent building behaviour may also be explored.

Not only is nest building a relatively undescribed behaviour, because of the easy access to building by zebra finches in the laboratory, it also enables identification of its neuronal basis. Using the immediate early gene (IEG) c-fos, a well-known molecular indicator of neuronal activity in the brain, Healy and Meddle have begun to identify some key neuronal structures that are differentially activated during nest building in zebra finches.  In this project, the intention will be to map fully the behaviour of building onto the bird’s brain.

This project would offer the successful candidate a wide range of training opportunities including field work, experimental design, neurobiology, and statistical analysis of a range of types of data.There will be multiple opportunities to present data to Healy’s lab group (contains several post docs, PhD, MRes and undergraduate students), within the School, at the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh and at both national (e.g. ASAB) and international conferences.All of Healy and Meddle’s students are encouraged to publish their data during their PhD and to take part in presenting their data to non-academic audiences.

Informal enquiries very welcome.  Contact: Sue Healy;