No. 3 Grassland

Spread number 3, Grassland, and the animals that live there.



Adventures with children’s picture books

Some of you may or may not know that one of my hobbies is illustrating and writing children’s picture books. I got the bug a few years ago after spending a glorious week attending the Children’s Picture Book Summer School at Anglia Ruskin in Cambridge. The annual course is taught by expert teachers from the MA Children’s Book Illustration course and aims to teach you how to write stories for picture books, design believable characters, and find a ‘voice’ that children are going to relate to. Most picture books are only 32 pages long and often less than 1000 words in total, so they are incredibly difficult to write well. I would say they are akin to writing a very good abstract for a journal article. Before starting the course, I had a story in mind, as well as what the main characters would look like, but it was amazing to see my original ideas transform into a dummy book by the end of the week. As well as help with writing and illustrating, we learned the principles of book design, attended lectures by famous picture book illustrators and writers, and had one-to-one tuition by Pam Smy, Birgitta Sif and Marta Altes, all with a number of very popular books under their belts. At the end of the week, we presented our dummy books to the rest of the group and they received a very useful critique. I was immensely proud of what I’d achieved and my book ‘The Parrot Who Wouldn’t Talk’ received some very nice comments.

After the course, I decided to produce the entire book using Photoshop and spent every day for about 3 months drawing and painting the twelve spreads, cover, title pages and end papers for the book that make up a 32 page children’s picture book. Unfortunately, trying to get a children’s picture book published is extremely complicated and seemingly improbable, probably because lots of people want to do it. Unless you’re a pop star, comedian, actress or footballer, even the chance of getting an agent to tout your potential book around is nye on impossible, never mind getting a publishing deal. So, my completed book has sat inside my computer, unread and unloved. I’m currently deciding whether to self-publish – although a tablet screen is never going to elicit the same experience as a physical book when reading to children – or I may even set up a Kickstarter campaign. Or I may just plunder on until someone picks it up…

The fact that this book still languishes in a virtual drawer hasn’t stopped me from completing another, albeit a very different type of picture book. If you’ve looked at some of the paintings on this site, you may have seen a series of evolutionary trees where I painted the animals using simple tiles to get across the details of their form. In one of the paintings, the different habitats of the different creatures were represented with different background colours. Dark green represented a forest, whilst deep blue represented the sea. My dad suggested that this might form the basis for a book, with each spread a different colour and a different environment. So, I created thirteen different spreads, a cover and end papers, including some additional environments to the original painting (underground, the dark, urban, volcano and snow), as well as sea, sky, forest, freshwater, grassland, jungle, mountain and sand. On each 2-page spread, the left hand side displays a typical animal in the environment in a display of their behaviour, whilst the right hand side contains a number of different animals also typically found in that environment.

To make sure that this project doesn’t just hide away in the same virtual drawer*, I’ve decided to post one spread a day here from the ‘Habitat’ book project, so keep an eye out for them. Anyway, I hope you like them.

The Sea

*If enough of you express an interest in buying any of these spreads as high quality, framable prints (without the copyright info), then I’ll look into what it might cost.

What to do when your principles conflict with your support of science?

Florida Photos 090

Above: The infamous Tilikum performing at SeaWorld Orlando in March 2005. The trainer is Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by Tilikum in February 2010. Photo by the author.

Last week, SeaWorld in the US, made the momentous decision to discontinue their orca breeding program, and to stop any new killer whales being brought into their three facilities at San Diego, Orlando and San Antonio, Texas. The killer whales will no longer take part in public shows. I also think SeaWorld made the correct decision not to return their captive orcas back into the wild. After so long away, there would be little chance they would survive.

Anyone who has followed recent events at SeaWorld, especially after the damning documentary Blackfish, will know the unnatural conditions the animals live in, and the dangers that both animals and trainers have to face multiple times daily in performing their famous Shamu shows. Despite this decision being a great step forward, it’s clear that SeaWorld’s actions are not entirely altruistic. Ever since Blackfish, SeaWorld has suffered a massive PR problem, so much so, that their stock value has plummeted. I don’t think that it’s too cynical to suggest that last week’s decision was driven by more than trying to make the lives of their captive animals happier. What has surprised me – as someone who has lived in a country (the UK) without any captive cetaceans for over 20 years – is how many dolphins and whales are kept in aquaria, zoos and marine parks across the world. Wikipedia suggests that as of September 2015, there were 58 captive orcas in North and South America, Europe and Asia (23 at SeaWorld parks alone). It is difficult to pin down how many captive dolphins there are across the world, but around 500 is a conservative estimate (with the number of dolphinariums in Japan [34] and the US [31] as quite staggering). Why do I bring this up?

I’m occasionally asked to support various animal causes because of my position as an academic comparative psychologist. Last week, I was asked whether I would sign a letter supporting scientific research on captive cetaceans because the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which oversees marine parks across the US, is reviewing their standards policy for keeping and using cetaceans. Researchers who study cetaceans in captivity request support for their research from individuals such as me, stating why it’s important and impractical outside of a captive environment. These scientists are rightly concerned that those with an extreme animal rights agenda will use any updated standards to force through a cessation of all research on captive cetaceans, and potentially a ban on housing dolphins and whales at all.

This request has caused me a little angst.

I work on captive animals. As someone who studies the cognitive abilities of animals, it is imperative that we maintain a strict level of control on what our animals experience, what may influence them during experimental trials, and most importantly, their previous experimental history. Despite some inroads into studying cognitive processes in wild animals, problems remain that restrict what can be surmised from this data. This leads to a problem. In order to conduct proper empirical research, we need to maintain a certain number of captive animals, but with the understanding that some species are going to be better off not being kept in captivity at all. Have you ever seen a polar bear in captivity?  What did you think? You probably saw it continually pacing around its enclosure, tracing the same steps over and over again. This stereotypy is likely the result of the bear’s natural propensity to roam great distances in the wild for its food, sometimes 30 to 80km per day. Of course, no zoo can ever mimic this sort of environment and so can never fulfil the species’ behavioural need. Despite this, it’s very important that we discover something about the behaviour and cognition of polar bears. With ever increasing destruction of their habitat due to climate change, bears are encroaching closer to human settlements. In order to prepare for these unwelcome visitors, it’s important to know more about their motivations, how they face certain challenges, what they can and cannot learn and how this information may be used to manage them safely. The frightening alternative is that they are managed at the point of a gun.

This is my problem, and the reason why I have yet to sign up to this supporting document. On the one hand, I don’t think cetaceans are best served by being kept in captivity (or at least captivity as we currently know it), as it cannot fulfil these creatures’ biological or intellectual needs. On the other hand, I strongly believe that we have benefitted from studying captive cetaceans. We may disagree about the interpretation of some studies, but we know so much more about these animals than we ever could by only studying them in their natural habitat; their intelligence, communication, perception, social behaviour and their extraordinary physiology. Similarly, we know more about apes, monkeys, corvids, parrots, elephants and a myriad of other creatures through captive studies than we ever would have by restricting our studies to wild populations. To be clear, I’m not saying that field studies are less important than captive studies in telling us something about animal minds (or anything else); far from it. Rather, that a combination of approaches is going to be the most powerful and informative.

Ultimately, I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I wish there was a happy medium. I continue to believe that captive research is essential, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. And I certainly don’t have the right to proclaim that it’s OK to study species X in captivity, but not species Y.

To me, there are two main issues. First, why do we need to keep so many cetaceans in captivity, and in so many different establishments? Second, we need to carefully consider whether some species are simply too dangerous, too large or too demanding to be kept in captivity, and perhaps these criteria should trump all research priorities.

Please complete our new survey on perceptions of animals

I would be very grateful if you could spend a little time (about 10 minutes) completing our new on-line survey concerning people’s perception of animals and their intelligence and emotions. You will first be asked to complete a few questions related to your age, educational background, diet and pet ownership, however this information will only be used in the context of the survey and will remain completely confidential. You will then be asked to rate 35 images of alien creatures on how likely you think each creature is capable of intelligence, experiencing emotion and feeling pain.

The link to the survey is below. We are constructing a version for kids which will become active in a couple of days.

Perception of Animals Survey

Please ask your friends and colleagues if they would consider completing the survey as we need to collect as many responses as possible.

Many thanks for your help!


Some more sculptures…

Now that I’ve whet your appetite, here are some more sculptures I made a few years ago, this time a mixture of creatures made either from clay or wire, or both.

Inner Ape (2012); gorilla made from galvanised steel wire armature covered in air dry clay and painted with black acrylic; crow made from galvanised steel wire.

Inner Ape

Feather & Ape (2012); galvanised steel wire armature covered in air dry clay and painted with black acrylic.

Feathered Ape

Rook (2012); steel wire armature, chicken wire and newspaper, covered in air dry clay and painted with acrylic. The words refer to terms common in corvid cognition.


Marabou Storkman (2012); galvanised steel wire on a wooden base.


Ants Again (2012); galvanised steel wire.


Supporting Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship applications

I am very interested in supporting applications from qualified applicants for a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship in the fields of comparative cognition or human creativity. My animal research focuses on the evolution of avian intelligence, from ratites to corvids, but I will consider studies on other animals, such as primates, carnivores or parrots. Whether I will support such applications will depend on the feasibility of your proposal, so please don’t hesitate to contact me to discuss this.

You will need a PhD in a relevant field of research (e.g. Psychology, Zoology, Neuroscience) and at least 2 years post-PhD research experience to have a competitive chance of obtaining one of these prestigious fellowships. The fellowship provides 2 years salary and research funds. The deadline for this year’s applications is 14th September 2016, but I would expect anyone who is interested to have contacted me by mid-April at the latest in order for me to assess your research ideas, and for us to complete the application in time. Please send a brief summary of your project ideas, as well as your CV and publications to I will get back to you as quickly as possible.

Before contacting me, please study the details of the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Individual Fellowships on the EU Participant Portal.

I look forward to hearing from you!


Now you see me, now you don’t

As I get more organised, I’m going to start posting some of my favourite art pieces that haven’t been placed into the more permanent portfolios of my paintings and illustrations on this site.

Here are two sculptures I completed a few years ago that complement the chameleon drawings you may already have seen in the Paintings section. These two pieces were made from wire armatures to form the basic shape,  then covered in air dry clay and then each circle was painstakingly painted in acrylic. Each sculpture is presented in front of a two-part acrylic painted panel, one plain and one patterned to create the illusion of camouflage in one condition, but not the other. Not surprisingly, the first is called Hide and the second Seek.



Not out yet, but it has its first citation!

Although ‘Bird Brain’ is not out until August, it has already had it’s first citation. I met the comedian, actor and ex-scientist Ben Miller over a year ago, after he had a day out in my wife Nicky Clayton’s lab to learn about corvids. He was writing a book on aliens and wanted to find out more about the aliens we already have on Earth and what we might know about their intelligence. I met Ben after he invited Nicky to be his mystery guest on the BBC1 comedy show ‘Would I Lie To You?’ as someone who had taught him to speak to crows. You can view episode on YouTube. We met in the green room after the show, as well as at a dinner in Clare College, Cambridge and have kept int touch since.

When Ben completed his book ‘The Aliens Are Coming’, he sent draft copies to Nicky and me, as we were featured in it (Nicky much more than me), and I sent him a draft of my book in return. Ben kindly added my book to the list of Further Reading at the back of his book, and I was very pleased when he said of the few books included, that they were in his “humble opinion, not just great science writing, but great writing”.

Ben’s book was published in February, and is a very enjoyable read, with his trademark irreverent humour, but with a very solid base in strong science as testimony to his science background in solid state physics. I really recommend it. Ben and I may be doing something together in the future, so keep a look out on this space for details!

The aliens are coming book

My first book ‘Bird Brain’ is out in August

Bird Brain Cover.png

I’m very pleased to announce in this first post on my new website, that my popular science book ‘Bird Brain’ has a publication date. It’s going to be published in the UK by Ivy Press on August 4th 2016, and in the US by Princeton University Press on August 30th 2016. I am incredibly excited and can’t wait for you all to read it. It took over a year of writing, and I created all the illustrations in Photoshop, which were turned into Ivy Press style by their fantastic illustrators. I’m going to start posting my original illustrations on this site in the next few weeks.

I’m very proud of how the book’s turned out, and I’m excited to see what you think of it. We think that it’s rather unusual, as it’s heavily illustrated, not just with stunning photographs, but diagrams of avian brains and illustrations of key experiments throughout. We’re also lucky that Frans de Waal was able to write the Forward.

You can pre-order the book on and, as well as other sites and real bookstores. I’ve been very lucky to work with an amazing group of people at Ivy Press to create a book of which I’m extremely proud, and which looks stunning! I hope the cover image above gives you some clue to how great the contents are.

I wrote the book to be of interest to as wide an audience as possible, including those that perhaps haven’t considered the intelligence of birds before. However, it also functions well as a coffee table book to be dipped into and digested in relatively small amounts. The book consists of  seven chapters on brains; memory & space; communication; sociality; tools & problem-solving; self-awareness, mental time travel & social reasoning, with each chapter containing a number of self-contained spreads.

Please keep coming back to this site to receive updates on the progress of the book, posting of images and original illustrations, and some thoughts on bird brains and other things that take my fancy. See you again soon!