When I finished my conjoint Bachelor of Science (majoring in biology) and Bachelor of Music (majoring in composition) at the University of Auckland, I had no idea how I could combine these disparate interests. One year later, as I handed in my Honours dissertation on arrow worm reproduction, I still had no idea. But then an opportunity arose at Massey University, one that combined my passion for biology and music in a beautiful Venn-diagram intersect: a PhD on birdsong!

Female birdsong is widespread but poorly understood. My doctoral research attempted to address the female song research gap in three ways. First, I examined the evolution of female song across the songbird group, and how it relates to female plumage colour. I found that female song and female colourfulness have evolved together. In species where females sing, females tend to be more colourful, and these two traits probably have similar functions.

Next, I worked with a computer scientist to create software for classifying and analysing birdsong and other animal sounds. This free tool (Koe – koe.io.ac.nz) allows you to quickly sort song units into types so that you can study repertoire and sequence structure.

Koe was crucial for my field study on song culture in New Zealand bellbirds (Anthornis melanura). My team recorded wild bellbird song at six beautiful sites in the Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand. Comparing vocal diversity between sexes and sites, I found that male and female population sectors had equal vocal diversity, but little male–female overlap in repertoire. The degree of repertoire sharing between sites was not significantly different for males and females, and was generally very low. The results suggest different cultural processes at play for the two sexes, underlining the inadequacy of male-centric song research and calling for comparisons of male and female song cultures in many more species.

Currently I hold a Marsden Fast-Start grant from the Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi, Understanding the evolution of complex female song in songbirds. The aim is to quantify female (and male) song complexity in a way that can be compared across the songbirds.

In my lecturing and science outreach I want to help others see the wonders of the natural world so that they will become ambassadors for science and stewardship of the planet.