I first met Jonah through Frosh Revue and soon learned of his ornithological proclivities when he would come into every class exclaiming how nice the birds at Cole Field were that day. We sat down to talk birds, his smooth jazzy jams and the future.
So many people on campus might know you for your ornithological interests – going birding, doing research on birds, a senior thesis on bird songs. How did you first get into birding?
I grew up in the woods – you couldn’t see any neighbors through the trees – so we were sort of isolated. Much of my process of growing up was outside, so I’ve always been really passionate about the natural world, and I was particularly interested in large mammals, the big cats of the world, when I was little – particularly cheetahs. Over time, I honed my focus into being keenly interested in all the species that make up the eastern forest, a really important biome for me growing up. Of the two bird-related experiences that really ignited this particular passion, [one was] my family’s encounter in 2013 or so with a snowy owl on our favorite mountain up in northern Maine. We were hiking over winter break, and we were up at the summit, which was this big, open, rocky outcrop. One piece of the snow lifted off out of the rest, and then this majestic, beautiful, big bird with intense eyes came cruising about 10 feet above us, looked straight down and then winged off elsewhere on the mountain. That was a point when I realized there were many mysterious and wondrous creatures that I hadn’t paid as much attention to, potentially right in my backyard, that only took a little bit of looking to find. The second thing that got me birding was when a friend of mine on Facebook posted a link to a video of the 30 most common birdsongs in the eastern forest in the summer. I was playing the video and realized that two or three of the songs I’d been hearing my entire life were these quintessential sounds of summer – the ovenbird, the black-throated green warbler and the red-eyed vireo – and I’d never bothered to take the time to figure out what they were. Forging that connection and realizing my greater place in the ecosystem around me was a really significant moment. From then on, I wanted to decode the sights and sounds of the eastern forest.
How is your thesis going? I know you’ve been busy wrapping that up these past few weeks.
The gist of it is that it’s on cultural evolution and individual performance as expressed through birdsong. Usually, studies of birdsong will look at how birdsongs are used as signals to encode performance value, aggression or courtship — most birds will have different types of songs they sing in different behavioral situations. They might sing one song to attract a mate, another song to ward off other males within their territory and another song to establish themselves as members of a certain population. But our study species, the Savannah sparrow, typically only sings and learns one song type throughout its entire life, so it has to encode all that information into individual components of the song. My advisor had identified this one hard percussive note type that’s been strongly linked to performance and reproductive success, and she’d done some work on that. What we’ve been looking at this year is if that particular note type — identified only in one population — is relevant as a performance indicator to members of other populations. So we played songs with those note types to birds in Williamstown and nearby islands, but to no avail, so it’s apparently very culturally specific. The bulk of the work I was doing was compiling and analyzing cultural history of all use of these interstitial note types over the past fifteen years for Williamstown, Kent Island – the island where the note type originated – and all the islands nearby. The third component was looking at what sorts of structural constraints in the song limit how many of these high performance notes you can put in one place and how they interact with the notes around them.
What are some of your favorite birdsongs?
That’s a great question. I’ve got favorite sounds for different reasons; the ones most important to me are very strongly tied to nostalgia. You’d be hard-pressed to find a song more quintessentially musically beautiful than the hermit thrush’s song. That’s something I always fell asleep to. It was one of the few birds my parents knew from their childhood and could identify, so as soon as the hermit thrush came back in June, it meant the start of summer, the end of school, open promise and lots of time spent outside. My other favorite bird sound is the call of the loon. I don’t think you’d find anything more wild-sounding than that, up on the lake in the summer. The lake’s about a mile wide and nine miles long, and there are pairs of them every half mile, so if you’re awake around 11 p.m. or midnight, they’ll all start calling to each other, and the whole lake is just this reverberating chorus of sound.
Continuing on the song theme, you’re a very musical man yourself – playing in the jazz ensemble, songwriting and whatnot. What role has that played in your life?
Music has always been something I’ve been very drawn to — it’s a source of security and habit. I had a set of songs I’d always sing with my dad before falling asleep, always in the same order. In middle school, we’d always listen to the same ELO [Electric Light Orchestra] album every single day, the same songs in the same exact places. I remember there was one traffic light we’d always stop at, and probably eight times out of 10, that was the point in the song “Mr. Blue Sky” when the lyric comes up, “Now his hand is on your shoulder.” My dad would always reach over and put his hand on my shoulder, which was just a very warm sense of security for an anxious, small boy. As time has gone on, music has remained a very important place of spiritual connection and self-understanding — a window to look outside myself and work outside the daily mechanics of grunt work, busy work and all the things that make life more difficult. It’s been a source of solace and often helped me to get through a lot of stuff.
If I can ask this, what plans for next year do you have coming together?
The broad stroke plan right now is to spend a year and a half doing bird-related field research, to gain some skills and use my youthful freedom of movement, which I’m very fortunate to have, to explore new places in the world and to get to know birds, habitats and biomes of other places. I have a job offer in Thailand for four to five months, which would involve doing bird count surveys in forest land, agricultural land, a local village and a university campus, which kind of sounds like my personal dream, so hopefully the next year and a half brings more things like that to fruition. The plan after that is graduate school for ornithology, and then to spread my wings further.
Spread your wings, I see what you did there. So is there anything else you feel this interview would be incomplete without? Anything a profile of you simply couldn’t omit?
I think my overall ethos is to be a person with a lot of love to share, and I think I try to make my time [at the College] centered around forging as many meaningful connections with people as possible and getting to know as many different people from as many different places in life as I can, because it’s been one of the most enriching portions of this experience – getting to know people with so many different forms of creativity and things that light their lives. So I hope to continue to find community like this the broader the places I go.