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Sheryl Knighton-Schwandt

Last modified: Thursday, April 12, 2007

Animal behavior expert to give distinguished research lecture April 16

April 11, 2007

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- In the Midwest, most farmers grow corn, wheat or beans.

Meredith West grows behavior.

West co-directs the Animal Behavior Farm at Indiana University Bloomington with her husband and research partner, Andrew King. Professor of psychology and biology, and director of graduate studies in the IU Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, she is also Indiana University's Distinguished Faculty Research Lecturer for 2007. The lecture takes place on Monday, April 16, at 3 p.m., in the Frangipani Room at the Indiana Memorial Union. The lecture is free, and the public is welcome.

"Just as a farmer's attention to good soil is essential for plants to thrive, attention to an animal's social needs is essential to their development," West says. "But while farmers see the effects of poor soil quickly as yields decline, social malnourishment is harder to recognize and easier to ignore."

At the Animal Behavior Farm, West and King create contexts that help to reveal the hidden needs and capacities of animals. In her 2007 Distinguished Faculty Research Lecture, West will reflect on the "close encounters of the avian kind" she has experienced at the farm as she has studied the multiple means by which animals learn.

"The Distinguished Faculty Research Lecture showcases the great research of some of IU's finest faculty and enhances the already strong scholarly networks that push us towards even greater accomplishments," says Michael McRobbie, Indiana University president-elect. "Not only is Meredith an accomplished research scholar, but she is also an outstanding representative of the academic community at IUB."

Working with cowbirds, starlings and other avian species, West has spent decades studying the social experience and competence of birds. Contrary to the image summoned by the term "bird brain," she says, many avian species rely extensively on social learning to transmit culture. West has focused especially on avian vocal communication.

At the Animal Behavior Farm, West and her colleagues were the first to discover that female cowbirds -- who do not sing -- still "teach" males how to sing by using visual gestures to motivate and manipulate the male's vocal practice.

And, on the 200th anniversary of Mozart's death, West's work on starlings made national headlines, as the media were eager to learn about a pet starling who played a musical role in Mozart's life and about an offbeat requiem by the composer that might have been inspired by the song of his starling friend.

The nature of West's work has demanded unusual laboratory settings that balance the researchers' need to see the animals with the animals' need for space and security. At the Animal Behavior Farm, the second of their laboratory-farm locations, West and King have 93 acres of land containing a number of large aviaries, the largest the length of a football field. West's and King's home is adjacent to the lab.

Employing state-of-the-art video and audio technology to document the actions of animals in semi-naturalistic environments, West and her Animal Behavior Farm colleagues are creating a new kind of laboratory for educating others and themselves.

The 2007 DFRL lecture is co-sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Research and the Office of the Provost at IU Bloomington. Inaugurated in 1980, the lecture series honors the achievements of IUB faculty. Past distinguished lecturers include Ciprian Foias, Richard Shiffrin, Elinor Ostrom, Gary Hieftje and Peter Bondanella.

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