Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What I Do

Several of you have asked about the research I've been a part of at school.

As many of you know, I took a laboratory course this past fall in which I got to work with a pigeon and an operant chamber.

#77, my "Learning & Behavior" class bird.

I absolutely loved the experience.  The class was a dream come true - I already knew so much about learning theory and behaviorism, and this class only posed more questions for me and broadened my horizons. My bird was a hard worker and I enjoyed seeing how he responded inside the chamber.  Suffice to say, I got an A on all but one assignment, and an A over all for the course.  I was thrilled when my professor called me a "really good student" and set me up so that I could start working in the lab for real.. with the goal of an eventual Honors experiment/thesis in mind (which I must do to graduate).

Since December, I have been in the lab several mornings out of the week, coding experiments, making new stimuli for the birds to peck at, among many other things.  One of my favorite experiences was "hopper training" four brand new birds, who had never seen the operant chamber before and didn't know how to peck at the key to receive the food reinforcer.  It was all taught by shaping, just as you'd do when trying to get a dog to interact with a novel object.

Finally, this morning, I discretely got some footage to show you all of one of the birds in action.  This bird is slightly more experienced than the "baby" birds I worked with earlier in the year, but he is still not very experienced and needs to work a bit in the chamber before he can run in an experiment.  

The video is 2 1/2 minutes long.  Feel free to skip around a bit.. I was going to shorten it, but wanted to show you the entire session.

I accidentally cut it off the screen, but, in this training session, the bird is pecking at a 2.7 cm white circle (you can see the faint outline of it, I think). After each peck, he receives access to food for 3 seconds.  This is a continuous reinforcement schedule - meaning, the bird is reinforced every time he pecks.

Also, disregard the banging sound that occurs after each peck.  The camera was vibrating against the plexiglass of the chamber and did not actually make that sound.



We should be starting the actual experiment soon, with this bird and an additional 7 birds.  I don't have the details in place yet, but we're going to be looking at how various experiences AFTER receiving training impact future recollection of that training - something that is scientifically called "retroactive interference."

This project is sort of a baseline for what will be my own Honors experiment.  It's rather simple, but will allow us to secure an experimental design so that we can explore more complex phenomena.

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DISCLAIMER: Animal studies are a touchy subject.  I want to mention that this laboratory is completely appetitive - meaning, we do not use punishment or aversive events like shocks and fear on the birds.  I also want to point out that most of these birds are ex-breeder birds that would have otherwise been destroyed.  No bird's life is sacrificed in this lab - in fact, a large percentage of the birds are living well past their expected lifespan!

17 comments:

KB February 9, 2011 at 11:53 PM  

I've never seen a pigeon in action in an operant chamber. It must be incredibly cool to watch the bird put it all together and figure out how to get the rewards.

"Retroactive interference" sounds like it is probably a very relevant topic to dog training. I'll be very interested to hear more about the basis for your experiment.

Based on my experience, I don't believe that there's any such thing as a "simple experiment". In a good lab, each experiment is incrementally building on the stockpile of knowledge in the field. The simpler the experimental design, the better!

It's so fun that you're doing research in an area that fascinates you so much.

Diana February 10, 2011 at 7:24 AM  

Very exciting and interesting. Wow, I wish I could have done things with animals in college. Lucky you!

Frankie Furter February 10, 2011 at 9:07 AM  

Congratulations ... an A that you can cherish for more than One reason.

LauraK February 10, 2011 at 9:15 AM  

This is awesome- what a great experience for you! Thanks for sharing, it's very interesting to see :)

Priscilla February 10, 2011 at 9:21 AM  

This is really awesome and interesting. I do wish we could have some courses like yours over here but I really doubt.

Crystal February 10, 2011 at 9:41 AM  

I am so jealous. You should post about this stuff more. You know, so I can be jealous more often.

giantspeckledchihuahua February 10, 2011 at 10:31 AM  

PETA IS COMING! PETA IS COMING! Hide your birds!

Seriously, very cool! I'm looking forward to you sharing more of this stuff!

♥♥♥ The OP Pack ♥♥♥ February 10, 2011 at 10:31 AM  

How interesting - we would all love to hear more about your work. Best of luck with your honors experiment.

Woos ~ Phantom, Thunder, and Ciara

Kathy February 10, 2011 at 1:02 PM  

That is sooo cool you get to work with experiements like that and how cool that the birds are not given adversives or killed and actually it is saving their life, and I bet they are really enjoying their time learning. It is also cool to know these are slightly older birds, and still very able to learn, drives me crazy when people assume only baby animals can learn ;-)

Never Say Never Greyhounds February 10, 2011 at 2:08 PM  

Neat! Its also kind of cool that they are sort of rescue birds.

Raegan February 10, 2011 at 3:48 PM  

Cool cool cool! COOL! That is so COOL!!!

I dunno, I don't really have a negative reaction to lab animals. I think there are obviously lines of ethics to be drawn, but in this case it never even crossed my mind that the birds might be mistreated. I wonder what PETA has to say about that?

Sara February 10, 2011 at 4:49 PM  

What a great, hands on learning experience!

Gus, Louie and Callie February 10, 2011 at 5:41 PM  

Oh that looks like so much fun. School is great when it is fun..

Big Sloppy Kisses
Gus, Louie and Callie

Kari in WeHo February 11, 2011 at 12:17 AM  

That sounds like a class I would love to take!

Kari
http://dogisgodinreverse.com/

Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart February 11, 2011 at 10:18 AM  

That's really neat. Why did the chamber go dark at the beginning? Does it signal something to the bird or calm him down?

Sam February 11, 2011 at 11:49 AM  

@Roxanne - The chamber went dark because I turned the lights in the room off and closed the door to the larger container that the chamber is housed in. When I hit "Start Experiment" on the computer, that's when you see the light come back. The dim house light inside the chamber turns on, and the monitor behind the pecking key lights up.

We do use those blackouts during the experiment itself sometimes, though, when working with different stimuli that signal different things. It separates each individual presentation of a given stimulus from the next.

Hopefully, I'll be able to record something a bit more complex in the future so you can see how emotional the birds are based on their reactions to different stimuli.

Sam February 11, 2011 at 11:55 AM  

@Raegan - I'm pretty sure PETA would not be too thrilled with the use of laboratory birds. I'm fairly certain that both HSUS and PETA do not support the use of laboratory animals.

There are many labs that do use shocks or invasive medical techniques on the animals. However, the guidelines to use that sort of stuff are beyond strict. The most ever used in this lab, to the best of my knowledge, are systemic psychoactive injections (and that's not very often).

Birds who are sick and can be cured are treated. Birds who can no longer work due to old age are allowed to live out their life in the laboratory. I'd say it's a pretty progressive lab, at least in terms of the treatment of animals. Someone is actually currently working on a project about animal well being, in order to possibly introduce different housing or various other forms of enrichment for the birds.

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