Editorial: Birding pals to reunite in the Amazon

  • Jeff Podos, is a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is an expert in the field of bioacoustics. He received a Fulbright Scholar award to do research in the Amazon with his friend, Mario Cohn-Haft, a graduate of Northampton High School. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Friday, June 01, 2018

A prestigious scholarship will help two birding experts with Hampshire County ties to renew their decades-long friendship this year in the Amazon, where they will do cutting-edge research about birdsong.

Jeff Podos, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is an expert in the field of bioacoustics, which studies how animals communicate by producing sounds. He received a Fulbright Scholar award that will pay him to teach and do research in Brazil during the fall.

There, Podos, 50, will team up with Mario Cohn-Haft, 56, a 1979 graduate of Northampton High School who has worked as an ornithologist in Brazil for more than three decades. Cohn-Haft is curator of birds at the National Institute for Amazon Research in Manaus, one the places where Podos will teach.

The two have known each other for about 25 years since their days as graduate students in the South when they were introduced by their wives, who are both Brazilian biologists. Podos arrived at UMass Amherst in 2000.

Cohn-Haft and Podos expect to do their most meaningful work deep in the Amazon rain forest studying the songs of the bellbird, which is a relatively small bird that makes a very loud sound heard as far as a mile away.

“We suspect it’s one of the loudest birds there is,” says Cohn-Haft, who observed the bellbirds on a recent expedition. His father, Louis Cohn-Haft, was a professor of history at Smith College, and his mother, Athena Warren, worked at Amherst College.

“Some of the songs are deafeningly loud, the decibels are like a blasting rock band,” says Podos. “We are interested in identifying adaptations these birds have for long-distance song transmission. It’s a topic that has been very poorly studied. We don’t know how small animals manage to get so loud. We are truly at the early stages of understanding the biodiversity.”

The two also will study the structure of the birds’ bodies to determine how that affects their ability to make loud sounds. “They have incredibly thick, powerful abdominal muscles,” says Cohn-Haft.

“We hope to be able to connect body forms to the sounds they produce,” Podos adds. “This sounds simple, but it will provide a lot of information about the ecology, diversity and evolution of these species.”

The two will use high-quality audio recorders, sophisticated sound-level meters and high-speed video equipment to gather data. “As a team, we hope to make audio and video recordings of some of the bird species that sing in very unusual ways, and to describe their habitat,” Podos says. “The behavior and vocalizations of some of these species are very poorly understood.”

The men also look forward to taking advantage of their friendship and complementary skills as they work together in what’s known as a cloud forest, at an elevation of about 3,280 feet. Podos marvels at Cohn-Haft’s “amazing, amazing field skills, like none I’ve ever seen” and his ability to mimic bird whistling.

In turn, Cohn-Haft says he is excited “to be able to just go out with a buddy and have some fun. The most exciting thing about it is working with Jeff — he’s a real superstar in the area of bioacoustics.”

While the two may have fun in the field, their work studying biodiversity and acoustic communication has applications that go beyond reports in scientific journals. It helps answer major questions about how the world is perceived by different species, including humans, says Cohn-Haft.

Podos adds, “It’s a humbling experience” to study the array of communication methods in the natural world, some of which — like the chemicals used by certain insects — are little understood by people. However, birds communicate in ways that people can easily detect and study.

“We’ll also look at adaptations to other features of their environment that may influence their songs, which in turn influence their social interactions,” Podos says. “Songs are the glue that holds bird societies together, and we want to learn more about the process.”

We expect that when the two birding pals are reunited in the Amazon, they’ll learn much from the sweet music they hear in the rain forest.