Birdsong Module

This cycle will investigate the brain circuitry that subserves the complex, learned vocalizations of songbirds. We will investigate how and where auditory and motor information about song is encoded in the brain using in vivo extracellular electrophysiology and calcium imaging in adult zebra finches. Experiments will be performed in male birds, who learn to sing a complex motor sequence, and female birds, who do not sing but do attend to the spectro-temporal properties of male songs when identifying individuals and evaluating potential mates.

In the first week, students will characterize auditory responses in multiple song nuclei in anesthetized birds, and then record singing-related activity and auditory responses in awake, behaving birds. Students will also be introduced to calcium-imaging techniques to record the spatiotemporal activity of many neurons simultaneously using miniature head-mounted microscopes in awake-behaving birds. In the second week, students will design and implement independent projects to investigate a specific question regarding the sensory and/or motor coding of a complex, procedurally-learned behavior.

Birdsong Module Faculty and Teaching Assistants 


Mimi Kao
Tufts University

I have long been interested in understanding how experience acts on the nervous system to shape behavior. In particular, I am interested in how social experience and auditory experience guide the performance and modification of learned motor skills. My lab uses behavioral, neurophysiological, and computational approaches to study vocal learning in songbirds. Our work so far has focused primarily on a cortical-basal ganglia-thalamo-cortical circuit that actively generates motor variability in the service of learning. Mimi was an NS&B student in 1998, and joined the songbird faculty in 2020.



Nancy Day
Whitman College

My interests are rooted human speech and language. Specifically, I examine the interplay between gene expression, neural circuitry, and social/environmental experience on song learning. I use a combination of approaches (i.e. behavioral, electrophysiological, molecular) to elucidate how specific genes may influence the learning and maintenance of vocalizations. In addition, I collaborate with Eric Fortune (current NS&B faculty) and Melissa Coleman (former NS&B faculty; Director of the Grass Lab) to research the neural control of duet singing in plain-tailed wrens. Prior to beginning my faculty position in Fall 2019, I trained with Dr. Teresa Nick at the University of Minnesota for my Ph.D. and Dr. Stephanie White at UCLA for my postdoc. Nancy was an NS&B student in 2009, a Teaching Assistant in the NS&B songbird module in 2010-2012, and joined the songbird faculty in 2020.

elizabeth-cooke-and-figaro-1-279x300Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth is a graduate student in the NSIDP who is studying the role of zebra finch Area X in vocal learning at the level of gene expression and neural circuit activity. She previously attended Oberlin College & Conservatory where she received a BA in neuroscience and a BM in violin performance, and worked in the lab of Dr. Tracie Paine studying how GABA regulates attention. She then worked as a technician in the lab of Dr. Zachary Knight at UCSF, studying the neural circuit basis for mammalian thermoregulation. In her spare time, Elizabeth enjoys hiking and playing chamber music. She joined the birdsong team in 2020.