November 5, 2011
By Jerry Asling
A group of 8 SFN members travelled to the University of Western Ontario in London to tour Advanced Facility for Avian Research. While it has only been operating for two years, AFAR is a unique world-class centre focusing on wild birds. Bird reproduction and migration are among the areas studied. Researchers are also looking into how the brains of songbirds work, with the possibility of helping in the study of human neuroscience.
We were met by Dr. Chris Guglielmo and Dr. David Sherry, who gave us a brief tour of the upper floor where some of the above research takes place.
Down on the main floor, Dr. Sherry explained his work testing the memory of Chickadees. Like other food storing birds, such as Blue Jays and Nuthatches, Chickadees cache seeds and insect in tree crevices and other hiding spots. They hide hundreds of food items each day, returning later in the day or in several days to retrieve most of the items. Dr. Sherry’s team has learned the birds are using spatial memory in the hippocampus area of the brain to record and remember where they put those extra seeds. The results may have implications for understanding how short-term memories are stored and retrieved in humans.
We were, then, shown the hypobaric wind tunnel by Dr. Guglielmo. It is one of only three such tunnels in the world (the first of its kind). It allows scientists to set temperatures, wind speeds, and air pressure to simulate the conditions that birds face in prolonged, high altitude flights. They can measure how much energy birds expend under different flight conditions and compare the flight efficiency of different species.
Since we were there on a Saturday, we were unable to see an experiments being carried out, but the tour was very interesting and informative, and enjoy by everyone.