Michelle Spierings, PhD

Pigeon Lab

e-mail: michelle.spierings@univie.ac.at



I am a postdoctoral researcher working on language and music perception in animals. My goal is to unravel which abilities related to the language faculty are shared between humans and other animals. Although language is a uniquely human system, this does not mean that all aspects of it are particularly unique. By studying which cognitive requirements for language perception are shared with other species, we can start to understand which building blocks might have shaped the evolution of the language faculty.


I started studying biology in the Bachelor program of Leiden University and continued my education with a Master in Neuroscience & Cognition at Utrecht University. During this masters I studied context-depended learning in guppies under the supervision of Simon Reader and I spend a year in Cambridge studying theory of mind in rooks under the supervision of Nicola Clayton.

My PhD project at Leiden University was a collaborative project with linguists, computational linguists and me and my supervisor, prof. Carel ten Cate, as behavioural biologists. Together we studied which aspects of language perception are shared between humans and other animals. My part of the project focussed on the cognitive perceptual abilities of songbirds (zebra finches) and parrots (budgerigars) and their ability to learn abstract acoustic patterns.

Grants & Awards

C.J. Kok prize, Leiden University, 2017

Nominated to have conducted the best science research of the past year.


Manitoba postdoctoral research grant, 2016 (awarded, not used)

Research grant allowing for two years of research at the department of Biological Sciences, University of Manitoba.

Hurford prize, Evolang, New Orleans, 2016

Best presentation at Evolang, an international conference on the evolution of language.


Famelab National Final, 2015

Famelab is an international science communication competition, in which young scientists explain their research to a laymen’s audience in just three minutes.


Presentation award at the NVG conference, Netherlands, 2015

Best presentation at NVG, a national conference on animal behaviour.


LUF Travel Grant

Leiden University travel grant to visit the Behaviour conference in Cairns, Australia, 2015



Geambasu, A.*, Spierings, M.J.*, ten Cate, C. & Levelt, C.C. (under review). Tell me what to learn: The effects of task-specific variables on artificial grammar learning and generalization

* authors share first authorship


Versace, E.*, Spierings, M.J.*, ten Cate, C. & Vallortigara, G. (under review) Imprinting generalization of patterns in young domestic chicks.
* authors share first authorship


Spierings, M.J., Hubert, J. & ten Cate, C. (accepted) Selective auditory grouping by zebra finches: testing the Iambic-Trochaic law.


Spierings, M.J. & ten Cate, C. (2016) Zebra finches as a model species to understand the roots of rhythm. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 10, 345.


Spierings, M.J. & ten Cate, C. (2016) Budgerigars and zebra finches differ in how they generalize in an artificial grammar learning experiment. PNAS, 113(27), E3977-E3984.


ten Cate, C. *, Spierings, M.J. *, Hubert, J. & Honing, H. (2016) Can birds perceive rhythmic patterns? A review and experiments on a songbird and a parrot species. Frontiers in psychology, 7:730.
* authors share first authorship


Kriengwatana, B., Spierings, M.J. & ten Cate, C. (2016) Auditory discrimination learning in zebra finches: Effects of sex, early life conditions and stimulus characteristics. Animal Behaviour, 116, 99-112.


Spierings, M.J., de Weger, A. & ten Cate, C. (2015) Pauses enhance chunk recognition in song element strings by zebra finches. Animal cognition, 18(4), 867-874.


Spierings, M.J. & ten Cate, C. (2014) Zebra finches are sensitive to prosodic features of human speech. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 281(1787), 20140480.


Riebel, K., Spierings, M.J., Holveck, M-J. & Verhulst, S. (2012) Phenotypic plasticity of avian social-learning strategies. Animal Behaviour, 84(6), 1533-1539.

ten Cate, C., Bruins, W.S., den Ouden, J., Egberts, T., Neevel, H., Spierings, M.J., van der Burg, K. & Brokerhof, A.W. (2009) Tinbergen revisited: a replication and extension of experiments on the beak colour preferences of herring gull chicks. Animal Behaviour, 77(4), 795-802.