The early bird catches the worm, and Rebecca Hill is fascinated by the early bird. Hill, 23, is pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, researching how birds learn their song.
She recently gave a talk about nestling call vocalization at the 2019 joint meeting of the Wilson Ornithological Society and the Association of Field Ornithologists.
So are you working with birds in the lab?
Yeah. So we have grasshopper sparrows, that’s the species we work with, we have them in the lab right now.
We’re interested in them for several reasons. They’re an endangered species in Florida, which is really important to study based on you know, the fact that we’re trying to conserve them … One in four birds, just in general all across North America have died since 1970.
But the grasshopper sparrows are really interesting because we think that they’re learning these two songs in a different way that’s unique. And this is all preliminary data and that’s what I’m trying to work on for my thesis, [which is on vocalization development]. I’m trying to discover if they have this unique way of learning as it relates to the neural circuits in their brain as well as the hormones, like testosterone.
Because we know that testosterone is used when birds are learning because in this species of bird, only the males sing, but something that’s really cool is that the lab next door to us … they are studying the fact that apparently a lot of females in bird species will also sing.
What are the grasshopper sparrows’ two songs?
[Their buzz song] sort of sounds like an insect, even. So it’s this really rapid trill. And then the second is their warble song, which is a bit more birdsong-like. It’s still really high pitched and they’ll often tack it on to the end of the buzz song.
What’s the difference between calling and singing?
What we distinguish between calling and singing is that singing is a learned behavior, which is a really complex thing to be able to do in the neuroanatomy of the brain. And so singing is really cool because there are certain ways you can compare it to human learning of speech.
As babies start to form syllables, they start to string together, you know, words and then phrases and then eventually complete sentences. And the same goes for birds, they’ll have this plastic stage where they’re starting to put together elements of the adult song based on what they hear from adults from their own species.
And if they don’t hear the correct song, they won’t be able to produce the correct song later in life.
Is the purpose of this to just study birds, or do you make some connections to the human brain?
Yeah, I’d eventually like to make that bridge between speech and learning and humans to song and learning and birds. Because there are speech disorders that we can study and probably learn from in birds. I haven’t really looked at that a lot, but I’d like to get into it. And it’s funny, my sister just got her master’s in speech and hearing pathology.
But for now, I’m going to stick with mostly just birds.
Do you think that your background in theater and music helps you with doing this research?
Having a background in doing music and theater has helped me sort of understand how the song system works and definitely made it easier for me to look at spectrograms and know what happens, because at this point, I can look at a spectrogram and I can identify, ‘Well, that’s wind, and those are crickets,’ just by the shapes on the graph.
In college, I actually did improv. That has really impacted how I view research and science; I view it very collaboratively. I don’t view it as a competitive thing where I need to do better than another scientist. I see it as I want to work with all these people. And I want to collaborate all these ideas together.
What do you like about teaching biology?
I really enjoy having that sort of community outreach … because the way I see it, before I got into research, I saw science as sort of an inaccessible thing where your average person can’t really just read journal scientific journals. And that pisses me the hell off, because the reason we are doing research is to get information and put it out in the world.
I would hope, eventually, to be an editor of papers. And I would hope to be able to say on these papers, ‘You need to make this more understandable to people who are not in this field specifically.’
What was it like growing up in an interfaith family?
We would go [to synagogue] for the major holidays. And we would actually go to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring. They included you know, all the Christian stuff, but they also talked about Jewish stuff and Muslim stuff and all these different types of ideas … it was like the most accepting place I’ve ever been.
My dad was raised Christian. And so we would sometimes go to like Christmas services at a church, right? And those just felt so much more strict to me. I always just felt much more welcome in synagogues.
We would do both Christmas and Hanukkah. So that was great that I got to experience both sides of it, but I always just felt much more connected to the Jewish side of my family because [Judaism] was just so much more in line with my own beliefs.
… I always just felt like [Judaism] was a much more just open minded place I could explore myself, you know?
Do you feel like that upbringing follows you in your daily life?
I definitely feel like I have to be an advocate sometimes — not just because of who I am and how I was raised, but because I don’t look Jewish necessarily, the only thing that might look Jewish about me is that I have curly hair … And so people never think that I have an identity other than what they believe.
I feel like I can use that privilege to be an advocate.