Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MSc)



Program Name/Specialization

Cognitive Neuroscience


Faculty of Science

First Advisor

David White

Advisor Role



Every day, animals use cognitive processes to make decisions in their environment such as those regarding food sources, threats and mates. One such important process provides the ability to recognize objects and individuals in order to guide future actions. Since object recognition and individual recognition are related processes, they may be linked to social cognition and to fitness; links not commonly explored in the literature. In this thesis I seek to examine (1) how brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) attend to and react to novel objects in their environment and (2) how this ability to recognize objects is related to social cognition and fitness. To test object recognition, I adapted object recognition tasks commonly used in other species into a test battery suitable for a wild bird. Together these experiments evaluated object recognition, memory of an object’s location, memory of an object’s context, and finally episodic-like memory. The results indicated that cowbirds demonstrated spontaneous object recognition as well as memory for objects within a context, but did not demonstrate a distinction in changes in object location or in the episodic-like memory task. When these results were compared with the bird’s social interactions, individuals who were most reactive to novel objects and objects in an unexpected context also preferred to interact more with familiar individuals as opposed to novel individuals. This indicates that object recognition capabilities may extend to individual recognition. I also found that individuals who were most reactive to objects in a surprising context were those who were best at selecting high quality social information to imitate foraging choices. Furthermore, when comparing the results of the 4 experiments with the reproductive success of these birds, I found that individuals who performed the best on the object recognition tasks also produced fewer eggs indicating that there may be a cost associated with using cognitive mechanisms for object recognition and memory. Overall, cowbirds have the ability to identify novel objects in different contexts, and this ability relates to social behaviour and reproductive success.

Convocation Year