Studying the Bird Brains of Parents

May 9, 2019

Humans and pigeons have a lot more in common than a love of park benches and French fries—so much that Rebecca M. Calisi, Ph.D. has dedicated her career to studying bird brains. 

She’s in a crowded field!  While Calisi is focused on pigeons, other scientists nationwide are studying the brains of a host of different birds to better understand why we humans behave the way we do—and why we sometimes behave in ways we’re not supposed to.

Calisi’s work has been funded with a $2 million, five-year grant through the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program.  She also is a recipient of a 2019 Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award.  Calisi was nominated by the Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology. 

At Calisi’s lab at the University of California at Davis, she and her team of post-doctoral students, Ph.D. candidates and undergraduates manage a crop of about 300 pigeons, or rock doves, to characterize how their genes “activate” during different states of parental care, from building a nest, to laying and incubating eggs and caring for the hatchlings.  Fun fact: not only does the mom pigeon lactate, the dad does too.

She also is investigating what happens when genes governing parenting fail to behave as expected.  “We’re looking at how we can remedy potential abnormal genetic activity that results in negative aspects of parental care,” she says.  “That’s the direction of this program.”

Using a technique called RNA sequencing, the researchers are zeroing in on a part of the brain known as the hypothalamus, or reproductive control center.  There, they observe the activities of all active genes—“not just whether [a gene] is turned on or off but also how much RNA is being made at the time,” she says.  “That gives us potential insight as to what genes regulate that behavior of males and females at that time [during the parenting process].”

Calisi also studies stress and its impact on reproductive gene activity.  Know any couples who finally got pregnant after deciding to adopt?  Another direction for her research, according to her website: “therapeutic strategies to ameliorate stress-induced reproductive dysfunction.”

Calisi explains that she launched her interest in reproductive behavior at the master’s level while studying female lizards in Mexico that are both brightly colored and aggressive.  While looking for focus on hormones and behavior, she found Berkeley.  But there the work was on feathers, not scales.

As Calisi sums it up: “By chance I started working on birds.”  For more information, visit the Calisi Lab website.