Research Western

Scott MacDougall-Shackelton: AFAR Takes Flight

As a child, Western psychology and biology professor Scott MacDougall-Shackleton grew up around birds.  “My grandparents were prize-winning bird breeders,” he says.  “Their house was divided – half for them, half for their birds.”

Leading the University’s new Advanced Facility for Avian Research (AFAR), MacDougall-Shackleton, with co-investigators David Sherry and Chris Guglielmo, can now provide even more space to house and understand them.  The new 13,000-square-foot building is home to cutting-edge laboratories devoted to learning how changes in the environment affect birds’ neural and physiological systems, and their reproduction and migration patterns.

It also contains the world’s first hypobaric bird wind tunnel, which allows researchers to study avian flight while altering such variables as air pressure, moisture, humidity, temperature and altitude.  “The wind tunnel and other facilities are used to understand migration, reproduction and survival over winter, which are difficult to measure in nature,” MacDougall-Shackleton says.

Jointly funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Research Fund, the $9.2-million facility allows researchers to understand birds’ abilities to adapt to environments, which provides important insight into conservation efforts, ecosystem health, disease and understandings of how birds respond to climate change.

“To protect birds, we need to know how they work and the causes for their decline,” says MacDougall-Shackleton, who points to previous research showing that DDT found in pesticides can result in a thinning of eggshells and a drop in bird populations.

“Birds are also an important model for neuroscience,” he says.  “Many breakthroughs have been made on birds, then mammals, including advances in knowledge related to neuroplasticity – which is the reorganization of neurons in the brain based on experience.”

With studies of at least a dozen species ongoing at any given point, full consideration has been paid to ensure the birds live in as comfortable and realistic semi-natural environments as possible.  As examples, given that they can see ultraviolet light, rooms have been equipped with full-spectrum lighting, and spaces for shorebirds like plovers and sandpipers have built-in artificial ponds.

Special chambers also allow researchers to reflect seasonal changes by varying light and the temperature from two to 40 degrees celcius, which is particularly significant to studies of breeding patterns.  Other behavioural study space will allow researchers to measure spatial cognition or to control what birds are able to hear, including vocalizations and communication from other birds.  Like humans, birds are able to learn vocalizations, singing in response to song.

This is an area of particular interest to MacDougall-Shackleton, whose primary research involves how songbirds process environmental information like seasonal changes or courtship songs and adapt their behaviours accordingly.  With training in psychology and biology, he is keen to see how such cues are processed by the brain and then translated into changes in behaviour or reproductive physiology.

“It’s the old ‘canary in the coal mine,’” MacDougall-Shackleton concludes.  “Birds are markers of the ecosystem.”

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