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Our People - The man who talks to chickadees

Chris Sturdy studies chickadees to unravel mysteries of human mind

By: Kevin Ma

  |  Posted: Wednesday, May 16, 2012 06:00 am

BIRD MAN - Chris Sturdy poses by a poster of the Primal Blueprint Diet on his office door at the University of Alberta. A psychology professor, Sturdy studies chickadees to unlock the mysteries of human and animal communication. He also has multiple sclerosis, which encouraged him to look into alternate lifestyles like the Primal Diet.
BIRD MAN - Chris Sturdy poses by a poster of the Primal Blueprint Diet on his office door at the University of Alberta. A psychology professor, Sturdy studies chickadees to unlock the mysteries of human and animal communication. He also has multiple sclerosis, which encouraged him to look into alternate lifestyles like the Primal Diet.
KEVIN MA/St. Albert Gazette

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Chris Sturdy talks to chickadees.

Not often, he clarifies – just the occasional whistle as they chatter at him in the lab.

"I'm under the impression that sometimes they modulate their singing if I sing back to them," he says, but he's not sure if there's an actual conversation going on.

Sturdy, 40, is a St. Albert resident who studies chickadees. A professor of psychology at the University of Alberta, he uses them as experimental models to solve the mysteries of vocal communication.

"Birds go out in the wild and they communicate," he says. "How is it that they accomplish this?"

An idea is hatched

You can tell a lot about a person by what's on his office door. Sturdy's door not only features a big sign professing his love of coffee, but also a comic strip featuring a fat bird in a nest.

"Chirp, chirp, chirp… uhh," says the bird, followed by, "Oh @#$@, I forgot the words."

Sturdy is a smart guy with a quirky sense of humour, says Calvin Wong, who lives in the same neighbourhood. He's also very fit, and is often seen walking around town with his two west highland terriers, Libby and Finlay.

"His two [dogs] are probably the most-walked dogs in St. Albert," Wong said.

Lisa Sturdy, Chris's wife, describes him as a family man who puts her and their two kids first.

"He'll get everyone straightened away, and then he'll take care of Chris," she said.

He's also the family cook, and is a big fan of healthy, locally-produced food.

"I think we all eat healthier because of him," Lisa said.

Born in Glencoe, Ont., Sturdy says he initially got into animal studies working with rats in a radial maze (a maze with a central start point and many paths branching off it). His work with Ronald Weisman at Queen's University got him interested in avian communication, particularly in chickadees.

"Chickadees are cool for a bunch of reasons," Sturdy says.

First, they have a complex social structure, forming big flocks in the winter and breaking into pairs during the spring. They also have a rich vocabulary of sounds they use to co-ordinate flock movements. They stay here all year and come in many varieties – mountain, black-capped and more.

Chickadees make good models for people since they learn their language from their peers, he continues. They can also recognize calls from foreign flocks (like people can recognize words spoken by strangers) and change their actions based on the calls they hear (like people react differently to hearing 'kitten' compared to 'tiger').

By analyzing their songs, Sturdy says he's also discovered that chickadees have regional accents – Ontario birds sound different from B.C. ones – and the birds can tell the difference.

By playing scrambled calls to them, he's determined that the birds rely more on the 'dee' part of their calls than the 'chicka' when it comes to recognizing members of their own species. Other tests have shown that they use the number of 'dees' in their calls to gauge threats (more 'dees' means more threat).

Chickadees can teach us a lot about the natural world and ourselves, Sturdy says.

"They're not as different from us as we might think."

Back to nature

The other item on Sturdy's office door is a poster dedicated to the Primal Blueprint Diet – a concept that says people can live healthier lives by eating and exercising as prehistoric humans once did. That means ditching processed foods and vegetable oils for fruits and vegetables, Sturdy says, and getting regular bursts of exercise instead of occasional long runs.

Sturdy says he started down this dietary path in 2009 when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

"I remember watching Benjamin Button," he says, "and I had to close one eye or else I saw two Brad Pitts."

While two Pitts might be a good thing for some people, he jokes, it was enough to convince him to see a doctor. All he could think about during the CT-scan that resulted was, "I hope it's not cancer."

"I guess it was the scientist in me who wanted to understand why I developed MS," he says. His research led him to the Primal Blueprint Diet and the idea that many 'civilized' diseases (like diabetes) were due to our unnatural lifestyles (like sitting at computers all day).

Sturdy isn't an ideologue, Wong says, and carefully scrutinizes the research before jumping onto any new health trend.

"He sees complexity from both sides of the equation," Wong said.

He's also happy to talk about his lifestyle with others, and has turned many folks at the university onto local food.

It's been more than a year since his last episode with MS, Sturdy says, but it's tough to attribute that to his new diet (he's also on medication for MS). Still, he's taken his experience and his research with it and turned it into a health studies course at the U of A.

Chickadees remind us of the need to pay attention to the natural world, Sturdy says.

"We are a part of nature," he said, "and when we forget that we are a part of nature, bad things can happen to us and to nature as well."

Chris Sturdy Q&A:

What did you want to be when you were eight?

"A forest ranger. I had no idea what that meant. I just knew it meant I'd get to spend a lot of time outside."

What kind of tree would you like to be?

"Coniferous ones are cool, since they're so resilient, but I'd go with maple for the sweet treats they provide. It would mean getting stabbed by syrup seekers every once in awhile, but it's temporary and for the greater good."


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