Ornithologist Cody Cox Catches His Hundredth Species at UGACR

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Although his tone is typically serious and his expression stone-faced, Cody Cox cracked a smile yesterday when he caught a rufous-breasted wren, his hundredth species of birds recorded here at UGA Costa Rica. Cox, a PhD candidate from Atlanta, has been conducting ornithology research in Monteverde since 2013, moving between Athens and UGA’s satellite campus in San Luis based on the seasons of bird migration. Cody just reached a benchmark of over one thousand birds caught as part of his five-year research project. We sat down with Cody to learn more about his current ornithology research in addition to his initial draw to working with birds. 

“I’ve always liked animals a lot,” Cox said of his introduction to ornithology. “I don’t know that I ever really specialized in birds in my mind until coming down to Costa Rica. Just seeing all that diversity really captured me and seeing some of the charismatic, tropical species [also] really captured me.”

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Ornithologist Cody Cox holds an emerald toucanet on the campus of the University of Georgia in Costa Rica on Thursday, June 30, 2016. (Photo/Rachel Eubanks, http://www.rachel-eubanks.com)

“I really like working with birds and I like that they’re lively and they’re responding to me as I’m manipulating them. I just felt like I made more of a spiritual connection with them [compared to mammals] and so I found that I really liked doing that kind of research.”

With this current project, “we are looking at generally how landscape structure, with particular interest on forest fragmentation, affects bird communities in the upper portion of the Bellbird Biological Corridor.” Forest fragmentation occurs in the Monteverde area as a result of agriculture; farmers often clear land for cattle pastures or crop growth, leaving gaps in the habitat area. Cox explained that fragmentation leads to reduced connectivity between habitats, resulting in birds’ decreased abilities to mate and find food while increasing population predation and competition.

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An orange-chinned parakeet sits suspended in a mist net set up on the campus of the University of Georgia in Costa Rica on Wednesday, June 22, 2016.

Cox and his team primarily use two measurements to determine species presence across different landscape gradients: point counts and mist nettings. With point counts, the researchers simply observe and count the birds present within a certain geographic radius. In mist nettings, researchers set up nets to capture, measure, weigh, photograph and subsequently release each bird. “So by putting those two methods together we’re able to get a pretty good picture of what species are present in a whole bunch of different locations,” Cox explained. “Then when we put all of that data together, we’re able to predict which certain landscape features are indicative of a species’ presence.”

Cox currently gathers this data with two particular species in mind: the blue-throated toucanets (related to the emerald toucanets) and blue diademed motmots. Both birds are generalists in their diets, abundant in the Monteverde area and relatively large, an important factor for attaching GPS transmitters without affecting the birds’ movement.

Upon completion of his five-year doctoral research project, Cody hopes that the data he has compiled will be used to “inform real conservation in this landscape and allow it to be a lot better targeted to some of these species of concern.” Conservation efforts must be both effective and efficient in order to make a measurable impact on bird populations. “I do care very much about the animals and I’m a big advocate for them and wanting them to persist,” Cox said. With a body of research that now includes over one hundred species and one thousand individual birds in the Monteverde area, Cox seems to be making his mark to ensure that these species survive.

All images made by photo intern Rachel Eubanks.

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