“It’s really relaxing out here,” White is saying as we watch a couple of young males try to chat up a couple of bored-looking females. “I never appreciated it as a post-doc. The professor I worked with [at Indiana University] always said it was almost a Zen experience to come out and take data. There’s no email, no phones—the birds don’t care if you got tenure or a grant or are writing a paper or they’re ruining your data. They just go on about their business.”  

He does seem awfully relaxed—and alert—for a guy who’s been up since 5 a.m. feeding birds, running multiple experiments, analyzing data, and, in his spare time, building a new aviary. But then, animal behaviorists are a pretty down-to-earth bunch.

“It’s because we all have had these task masters, and we’ve had to adjust our lives to these simple little organisms that are running around,” says White, whose tanned features would look at home on the cover of Outdoor Life. “Anybody who’s had to deal with poop in a professional manner …”

White’s original nesting ground was Ontario, an environmental influence that shows up in certain notes of his song pattern (aboat instead of about, for example). He wasn’t particularly interested in birds as a kid, but when he was earning his Ph.D. at McMaster University in the late 1990s, he soon concluded that they offered more possibilities than his original choice, rats.

With birds, “you can look at two species that may differ only in one aspect of their ecology or their social ecology and compare them very nicely,” he explains. “Mammals do almost all of their communication with scent. With birds it’s all very visual, very bright colors, and much easier to study and observe.” There is even a visual component to their aural communication—at least for human observers—“because you can record their songs and print them out, and that works out to be visual.”

When he migrated to Indiana in 1999 for his post-doctoral work, he started out with quail. Along with psychology professor Meredith West and senior scientist Andrew King, White discovered that when a female quail sees a male having sex with another female, she becomes more interested in the male, whereas a male will be turned off by the sight of a female copulating with another male. But quail—which he describes as “so dumb they don’t know to get out of the way of a lawnmower”—turned out to be of limited interest for White.

And so to cowbirds, which he studied extensively with West and King, churning out papers with titles like “Plasticity in Adult Development: Experiences with Young Males Enhances Mating Competence in Adult Male Cowbirds.” West remembers him fondly as full of energy (“I wish I could bottle it”), devoted to his birds, and generally “fantastic to work with.”

“He’s going to go on to do lots of really interesting things,” she adds. “He’s a great experimentalist, and he’s very good at experimental design.” She points out that White was the one who figured out how to take data by speaking into a wireless microphone connected to a voice-recognition software program, instead of writing down every observation in a notebook.

“The computer can do some great things you can never do on your own, like time-stamp every behavioral interaction,” says White. “Every time I say something, it puts a time on it automatically. And that led to the realization that counter-singing was this important variable that you could program the computer to look for.” Counter-singing occurs when a male sings back to another male within 15 seconds, he explains, and turns out to be “the main predictor of how many eggs a female’s laying” that season.

“Dave was really the sparkplug behind all that work,” says West. “We had been interested in the idea before, but had never had a chance to try it out. Dave put together all the pieces, with my husband [King] helping a lot.”

“Pretty much all I did was buy the software and put it into the computer,” says White. But the system has been indispensable for conducting the kind of experiments he has designed. “I think we’re up to 750,000 data points using this technique, maybe more,” he says. “It would take 20 years to collect that by hand.” He pulls out a sheet of song data for the breeding season. “We’ve taken 17,526 songs and 5,116 near-neighbor points, which is when two birds are beside each other,” he explains. “So we have, for example: OPL sings to MMD, and MMD leaves in response. YLO whistles and DDY just sings an undirected song to nobody. And it just goes on and on and on.”

The spreadsheet shows that an early-hatched male known as W24, for example, has sung one song each to two different females, four to another, seven to another—and 498 to NGW. “It’s pretty clear how monogamous this bird really is,” says White. “This is the kind of thing I do—just go through all these patterns and patterns and patterns and data.”

He came to Penn two years ago, lured by the promise of enough land to build his aviaries—and by the quality of the psychology department.

“The people in the Department of Psychology are just fantastic,” he says. “I gave a lot of job talks in my time on the job market, and giving my job talk here was a singular experience. None of them, except for two, do anything with animal behavior, but every one of them got the ideas, got the important aspects of my work, and were able to ask questions taking it to the next level. It was an intoxicating experience to have this kind of feedback.”

His research also has implications that go beyond the department.

“His work is at the forefront of studying how social interactions and general social makeup within a colony affect social development, including vocal learning,” says Marc Schmidt, the biologist. “I saw his coming here as a great opportunity for us to learn from each other and try and collaborate to study brain function within behaviorally relevant social conditions.”

The high quality of the undergraduates he has supervised has been a pleasant revelation for White, and the benefits have been mutual. “White’s research provides an extremely attractive setting in which undergraduates can gain valuable research experience in both field and laboratory settings,” says Dr. Robert Rescorla, professor and director of undergraduate studies in psychology and a former dean of the College. “This importantly supports Penn’s dual mission of excellence in research and education.”

But always, it comes back to the cowbirds. One doesn’t have to spend much time with White to figure out that he genuinely loves his subject matter.

“They’re a wonderful natural experiment going on out in the wild,” says White. “I shouldn’t say wonderful, because they’re a terrible pest species and they’re crushing all the other songbirds. But they’ve radiated across all of North America, and you can find them in just about any kind of social makeup, any kind of habitat. You have a whole lot of variation out there that you can bring into the lab and manipulate experimentally.”

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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 08/25/05

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COVER STORY: The Cowbird Variations