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June 18, 2015

Laurier researcher David White is working in a new research paradigm — studying birds in large, semi-natural social environments using a high-tech “social sensor web.” His goal for the project is to complete building large aviaries equipped with automated monitoring systems that will work in concert with motion-activated surveillance cameras and audio recording devices. The monitoring devices will capture the vast majority of social interactions that occur.

By preserving the flock structure in the aviaries, the context in which learning and development occurs for these birds can be studied. However, it is difficult to observe individual bird behaviors in flocks — there are thousands of interactions that occur in a social system, often in rapid succession. Therefore, high-tech sensors and cameras are required to capture tiny, quick, social interactions.

“There is dramatic flexibility in characteristics that were never before considered to be influenced by social learning — aggression, mate choice and birdsong,” said White, an associate professor of psychology. “Young males with no access to adult males fail to develop normal behavior.”

White received $59,117 for his project, titled "The Songbird Project: an integrative examination of social behaviour," as part of the Ontario Research Fund program from Ontario’s Ministry of Research and Innovation.

While many labs all over the world are racing to implement these technologies into their research, White’s “smart aviaries” integrate automated individual recognition technology, video tracking and audio recording in a research environment that is unique to Canada and the world.

White also plans to engage citizens in his work through a web streaming presence, providing a unique opportunity to collaborate across the world and experience this science in action.

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