Heather Williams

Photo of Heather Williams

William Dwight Whitney Professor of Biology

Thompson Biology Lab Rm 205
At Williams since 1988


A.B. Bowdoin College (1977)
Ph.D. Rockefeller University, Behavioral Neuroscience (1985)

Areas of Expertise

Animal Behavior and Neuroscience



Cultural Evolution in Biological Systems (not offered 2024/25)

Scholarship/Creative Work

*Williams College student or former student  (Note: several reviews are omitted)

Professional Affiliations

  • Animal Behavior Society
  • American Ornithologists’ Union
  • Society for Neuroscience

Current Committees

  • Campus Environmental Committee, Chair

Research Interests

These are some of the major strands in the lab’s thinking about bird songs and the brains that produce them:

Song organizationhousefinchpic

Like human speech, bird song can be divided into phonology and syntax. Birds learn phonological units (notes or syllables) from conspecific singers, and then assemble these subunits to form a song. The songs of different species appear to follow different syntactical rules; winter wrens’ songs, though elaborate and complex in their phonology, have an invariant syntax, house finches have rules that define a variety of paths through their large syllable repertoires, and zebra finches have both a small syllable repertoire and a relatively simple linear syntax. We are investigating how syntax arises through 1) comparative studies of related species; 2) selective breeding of zebra finches with variable syntax; and 3) presenting young zebra finches with variable syntax in model songs to determine whether abnormal syntax can be learned.

Cultural evolution of songsavannahsparrowpic

Learned traits, such as songs, are transmitted and changed in ways analogous to genes. Males may learn from their fathers, older neighbors, or even from males of the same age, and females may prefer certain song characteristics.  We seek to understand how, in a wild population of Savannah sparrows, these factors combine to cause some parts of the song to be stable for decades, others to vary rapidly and randomly, and still other song segments to vary systematically over time. The approaches we use are observational (tracking changes in song and relating them to characteristics of the singers), comparative (contrasting the songs of different populations), and experimental (exposing young birds to a variety of songs to determine which novel sounds are incorporated into the population).

Reversibility of song crystallizationZFadult

Zebra finches are “critical period” learners, completing song learning at sexual maturity, which occurs 90 days after hatching.  By interfering with the mechanics of song production, we can induce adult males to alter their songs in a way that is similar song development learning process. What conditions and what neural circuits are necessary for rejuvenating the brain?


Theses Advised

Recent honors students include:

  • Joe Boivin ’09
  • Danielle Perszyk ’09
  • Dani Levine ’10
  • Hannah Rosenthal ’10
  • Leigh Davis ’11
  • Clint Robins ’11
  • Kate Foley ’12
  • Nicole Lou ’13
  • Rebecca Shoer ’13