Two local bird experts plan study trip to Amazon forest

  • The Amazonian bellbird may be one of the loudest birds there is, Cohn-Haft says. ANSELMO D'AFFONSECA

  • Serra da Mocidade, an Amazonian mountain with cloud forest and bellbirds at elevations above 1000 meters. —MARIO COHN-HAFT

  • Cloud forest is home to tree ferns, epiphytic mosses and bellbirds — species not usually found in the lowlands of the Amazon basin. —MARIO COHN-HAFT

  • Jeff Podos, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts, will be traveling to Brazil to study the Amazonian Bellbird with his friend Mario Cohn-Haft, an ornithologist who grew up in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jeff Podos, a Biology professor at UMass, in a filed on Orchard Hill where he and his students do projects. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jeff Podos, a Biology professor at UMass, in a filed on Orchard Hill where he and his students do projects. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jeff Podos has received a Fulbright award to allow him to study the Amazonian Bellbird in Brazil. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jeff Podos, a Biology professor at UMass, in a filed on Orchard Hill where he and his students do projects. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mario Cohn-Haft, shown here holding a rare bird on an Amazonian mountain, is curator of birds at the National Institute for Amazon Research in Brazil where he has worked for over three decades. MARCOS AMEND

  • “This is one of the high points, to be able to just go out with a buddy and have some fun,” says Cohn-Haft of his trip with Podos. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Published: 4/30/2018 9:11:37 PM

When Jeff Podos and Mario Cohn-Haft journey into the remote mountains at the edge of the Amazon basin in Brazil later this year, it will be a collaboration 25 years in the making, and one with deep ties to the Pioneer Valley.

The story of the two men — both bird experts — is one local birders may already know.

Cohn-Haft, 56, is an expert ornithologist who has lived and worked in Brazil for more than three decades, but was raised in the Northampton area — his father was a professor at Smith College and his mother worked at Amherst College. Some of his earliest memories are of wandering the Smith College grounds and greenhouses, and he graduated from Northampton High School.

Podos, 50, of Amherst, is a renowned University of Massachusetts biologist, has lived in the Valley for almost two decades, and is a prominent researcher in the field of bioacoustics, the study of sound production and communication in animals.

After more than two decades as friends, the two researchers will soon get to conduct their first research project together, studying the way a certain species of bird produces its incredibly loud songs.

“I’ve known Mario for, like, 25 years,” Podos said in a recent interview. “We met each other long before I got to UMass or he got his job in Brazil.”

The collaboration will be possible because Podos recently won a Fulbright award, which will provide a stipend and travel money for him to go on an expedition with Cohn-Haft into the Amazon to study bird communication and how the songs of the Amazonian bellbird are influenced by their body structure. They are hoping to figure out how the birds’ relatively small bodies produce such booming songs.

“We suspect it’s one of the loudest birds there is,” Cohn-Haft.

The Fulbright program is sponsored by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Established in 1946, the initiative emphasizes science diplomacy and international research collaborations between American researchers and fellow scientists around the world.

In addition to the research with Cohn-Haft, his Fulbright will bring Podos to teach at two host organizations: the National Institute for Amazon Research — the research institution headquartered in Manaus, Brazil, where Cohn-Haft works — and the Federal University of Amazonas.

In the field, Podos and Cohn-Haft will have equipment to record the birds’ songs with the hope of shedding light on a bird that is poorly understood by the scientific community.

“They have incredibly thick, powerful abdominal muscles,” Cohn-Haft said, adding that he and Podos hypothesize that that might help the birds protect their bodies while making such loud calls. “They have like a six-pack.”

Mutual admiration

The two bird experts describe each other in flattering terms, both expressing excitement about the unique talents the other brings to the research. The collaboration, they say, will be a perfect melding of their talents.

“Amazing, amazing field skills, like none I’ve ever seen,” Podos said of Cohn-Haft, describing Cohn-Haft’s sharp musical ear and ability to mimic bird whistling. Hearing those praises, Cohn-Haft modestly insisted that he has heard barred owls in the Pioneer Valley swoop down and chastise him for his poor rendering of their song.

“This is one of the high points, to be able to just go out with a buddy and have some fun,” Cohn-Haft said of their impending journey. “The most exciting thing about it is working with Jeff — he’s a real superstar in the area of bioacoustics.”

Long ago meeting

Back when Podos and Cohn-Haft met, they actually didn’t have a Pioneer Valley connection yet. They both attended graduate programs in the South, and were introduced to one another during those years by their wives, who are both Brazilian biologists and knew each other from the academic world.

Podos’ wife, Cristina Cox Fernandes, studies fish, and Cohn-Haft’s wife, Rita Mesquita, studies forest regeneration. Both now work at the National Institute for Amazon Research, where Cohn-Haft is curator of birds.

The two had grown to be friends working in the same field, and when Podos took a job at UMass Amherst in 2000, he said he had forgotten Cohn-Haft had grown up in the area. Cox Fernandes, Podos’ wife, also took a job at the university, as an adjunct professor.

“It just wasn’t something that came up in conversation, so I’d forgotten,” Podos said.

“They got jobs in the Pioneer Valley, of all places, where I grew up,” Cohn-Haft said of Podos and Fernandes.

Through all the years since, the two have stayed close.

Contrast in the forest

Now, they will be traveling together to what’s known as a cloud forest, at around 3,280 feet of elevation, where the pure white bellbird stands out in sharp contrast with the dark green forest, dripping in moss, Cohn-Haft said.

“You can see them from an airplane,” Cohn-Haft said of the bellbirds, which he encountered on a recent expedition. “They probably count on being able to make loud sounds and being able to be seen from a long distance to maintain their territory.”

When the two venture out to find the bellbirds later this year, they hope to make audio and video recordings of the species as they study the birds’ bodies for clues about their sound production.

“I’ve been interested in questions about animal communication and animal behavior,” Podos said of his own research. “We’re just really interested in seeing what animals do in field contexts.”

Cohn-Haft, meanwhile, is an expert on Amazonian birds and their identification, and hopes to continue documenting the rich variety of bird species in the most biodiverse region on the entire planet.

“What I do is try to figure out what birds occur in the Amazon, and exactly where they occur and, ideally, why they only occur where they occur,” he said.

That work — studying biodiversity, acoustic communication and the seemingly infinite ways animals solve the challenge of survival on Earth — has implications beyond any lab or scientific journal.

“It’s important to know who we share the planet with,” Cohn-Haft said. “We have an increasing environmental awareness of the role of humans play in the functioning of the planet and ecosystems. And ideally, we would like that to be not an exclusively negative role, which it unfortunately happens to be most of the time.”

Broader implications

Studying the natural world and how species survive has yielded important knowledge in fields as disparate as engineering, medicine and art, and researching animal communication helps to answer big questions about how different species — including humans — perceive the world, Cohn-Haft said.

“It’s a humbling experience,” Podos said of studying the breathtaking variety of acoustic communication in the natural world. And, of course, animal communication isn’t just limited to that one method.

Humans may be able to glean information acoustically and visually, Podos said, but we are still figuring how to even talk about some of the ways other species communicate — through electric signals, for example, like the fish Cox Fernandes studies, or via chemicals like some insects.

“It’s harder for us to understand it and appreciate it,” Podos said of those other forms of communication. “That means our view of the world is very biased.”

Birds, however, communicate in ways humans can easily detect and observe — acoustically and visually. That’s probably why so many people love observing birds, Podos noted.

“Songs are the glue that holds bird societies together, and we want to learn more about the process,” Podos said.

At this stage in their careers, having carved out their own areas of expertise and published many papers, Cohn-Haft said the two can finally focus on the kind of passion projects that pique their curiosity the most.

“Let’s just follow up on whatever leads we think are interesting, because we don’t have to prove anything to anybody anymore,” Cohn-Haft said. “We can really just enjoy exploring nature.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at
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