Watching Birds by EarPosted February 10th, 2011
by Bert Williams
You might think that a visually impaired person participating in an activity referred to as “watching” would be at a disadvantage. You might also be wrong. The reality is that, for many skilled bird watchers, listening is more important than seeing, and the number of blind bird watchers is growing.
Last spring I met a small group of birders in a bucolic, misty little valley nestled between rolling hills in eastern Nebraska. The spot, known as Spring Creek Prairie, is owned and managed as a wildlife preserve by the Audubon Society. The 808-acre preserve includes areas of tallgrass prairie, marsh, and deciduous forest. When my car rolled to a stop in the gravel parking lot it was 5:45 a.m.
Russell Duerksen, the leader of our group on this particular morning, is an attorney by profession and a bird watcher by passion. He occasionally teaches an ornithology class at a nearby college. Duerksen says his uncorrected vision is something like 20-300—though he has lost track of the exact numbers—and even with glasses it’s not so good. He usually has a pair of binoculars along with him, and he uses them, but only occasionally.
Our group was birding for an hour together before it got light enough to see much, and in that hour we had already identified a barred owl, great horned owl, wild turkey, indigo bunting, grasshopper sparrow, yellow warbler, Bell’s vireo, red-headed woodpecker, eastern meadowlark, northern cardinal, chipping sparrow, common grackle, and several others.
“We haven’t actually seen a bird yet,” Duerksen said quietly, “and already we’ve heard fifteen or twenty different species. Maybe closer to thirty.”
Duerksen continued: “Especially in the tropics, where the forest canopy is so dense, the majority of bird watching is done by ear. Top ornithologists working in the tropics may have seen only two or three birds in a half-hour period, but they’ve probably identified fifty to a hundred species by ear.”
A LARGER DIMENSION
John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, points out a remarkable thing about listening to birds as compared to watching them. People who listen to birds, he writes, “are perceiving auditorily a bigger dimension to the landscape than we do when we’re watching.” Picking up that idea, John Neville of Salt Spring Island, British Columbia observes, “If we’re outside we may be able to see a bird within the 180 degrees of vision our eyes give us. But our hearing makes us aware as if we’re listening to 360 degrees, and often at much greater distances than we’d be able to see.”(1)
Why is it possible to know so much about birds just by listening? Simply because the sounds birds make are just as unique to their species as is their physical appearance. Sometimes, in fact, it’s the song more than the appearance that distinguishes one bird from another.
So why do birds sing? The primary purposes, at least in spring and early summer, are to establish territory and to attract a mate. Gareth Davies describes the feathered rites of spring:
In most species, a male bird owning a territory is essential for attracting a female and breeding successfully. Males claim a territory by singing in it. They generally use shorter, simpler songs for territorial defense. They are addressing their songs to rival males. . . . When they are trying to attract females onto their territory, males become operatic. They sing longer and more complex songs. Females listen, but do not generally respond. . . . The females will spend several days visiting a selection of singing males before making their decision. They prefer to mate with males singing the most complex songs with the largest repertoire.(2)
Davies observes that females are not attracted to the best singers simply because they like the music. “Bird song conveys a very honest message about the singer,” he writes. “The singer can’t cheat: because singing expends energy; smaller, weaker birds cannot bluff the receiver into thinking that it is a larger, stronger rival or mate. Only strong birds with extra energy and strength can invest the energy needed for loud, continuous singing, and evade any predator that may detect it.”
Birds do not make sounds only during mating season, however. At any time of year they may be communicating with nearby birds about a threat to their safety, signaling distress of some kind, or calling out to discover the location of other birds in the neighborhood, and they have different calls for each purpose. As Fitzpatrick observes, “What [birds are] communicating to each other, by all these sounds they make, turns out to be very sophisticated and complex stuff.”
As our small group stood quietly in those early-dawn moments at Spring Creek Prairie, we heard an example of direct communication: two barred owls calling and answering through the mist, one nearby to the northeast, the other in the distance to the southwest.
Though it may not actually be so, birds sometimes seem to display a sense of humor with their songs; at least it can seem funny to humans. Davies tells of the female black-headed grosbeak that apparently sings in order to put a jealous charge into her mate. Grosbeak parents typically take turns on the nest while eggs are incubating. If the male’s time away from the nest lasts too long, the female will sing a complex song that is not her own, but rather her imitation of another male grosbeak. It’s apparently a ploy to convince her mate to get back to the nest by making him think a rival male is in his territory.
Melissa Mayntz, who has written extensively about birds and bird watching, observes that many birds develop geographic variations of their songs. As a result, songs from the same species can sound different from one place to the next.(3) And Davies observes, “Their songs have been shaped by their environments, just as the rap musician of New York delivers a different ‘tune’ [than] the yodeler in the Swiss mountains.”
MAKING SENSE OF ALL THAT SOUND
So then, if bird songs and calls are so complicated, what chance does the average person have of making any sense of them? Plenty, actually, because it doesn’t all have to be learned at once. It can be as simple as this: Three common birds in my own backyard are American robins, northern cardinals, and black-capped chickadees. I can start with just these three birds; their songs are distinctive and easy to tell apart. Once I learn them, I can learn a fourth, then a fifth, and I can just keep adding songs to the list. For some, expanding knowledge of bird songs has become a lifelong passion.
Consider, for example, the experience of Elizabeth Causey of Macon, Georgia. Now in her 20s, Elizabeth was born three and a half months premature, totally blind, with multiple developmental challenges. She was introduced to birdsongs by an audiocassette tape her grandmother gave her when she was 4 years old.
“It was one of our first revelations that there was a lot of potential in Elizabeth,” recalls Miki Fluker, Elizabeth’s mother. “We’d buy a tape. She’d learn them. We’d buy another tape. She’d learn them. By the time she was seven she knew more than four hundred bird calls.”
The tapes Elizabeth learned from were created by naturalist Lang Elliott, who continues to produce audio and video recordings not only of birds but also of amphibians, insects, and other nature sounds. When Elizabeth was 7, she and her mother traveled to meet Elliott, with whom they have maintained a friendship ever since.(4)
Moving on to Elliott’s CDs presenting the sounds of amphibians, and mastering them, Elizabeth has now become a volunteer with the Department of Natural Resources of the state of Georgia. She works as a frontline identifier of amphibians at ten critical locations in the state. Visiting the ten spots in each season of the year under carefully controlled parameters, Elizabeth reports information on amphibians that flows into the department’s annual statistical report.
FAMILIAR TASKS IN NEW WAYS
Aerial Gilbert, outreach manager at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California, began bird watching with her grandfather before she could read. She took ornithology classes in college as she completed a nursing degree, and participated with groups of bird watchers in annual bird counts.
Then, in her early 30s, Gilbert bought a container of over-the-counter eye drops that had been contaminated with lye. That proved to be the last day Gilbert was able to see.
She was devastated at first, but gradually adapted and relearned how to carry out many activities and responsibilities. “I realized I could do many things by letting go of how I had done them before and thinking up new and creative ways to accomplish a task,” she says. At first, however, she did not think bird watching would be one of the activities she could continue to enjoy.
Then three years or so after her encounter with the eye drops, Gilbert and her husband were hiking in Arizona. He saw a bird he could not identify. She started asking questions about its appearance and soon suggested that it might be a cactus wren. He looked it up in the bird book and sure enough: cactus wren. That got her thinking about bird watching again. Before long she had found audio CDs filled with bird songs, and the world of bird watching once again opened up to her.(5)
One of Gilbert’s primary passions is competitive rowing, and I spoke with her on the phone a day after she had competed in a race in a lagoon south of San Francisco. Gilbert said she does a lot of bird watching—some actively and intentionally and some passively. “I enjoy just being outside, hearing a bird and knowing what it is,” she said.
Gilbert shared two resources that she thinks are especially useful. One is a course offered by Hadley School for the Blind called “A Birdsong Tutor.” According to the Hadley School website, the course was developed by the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology especially for people who are visually impaired. The detailed, four-lesson course is expected to take four to six months to complete.(6)
And Gilbert’s new favorite resource is an iPhone app called iBird West. “They have them for different regions,” she said, “and this particular app works well with the screen reading software that comes with the iPhone.”
Gilbert also recommended connecting with a local bird watching club. “My experience has been that any club would embrace a person who is visually impaired and wants to learn more about birds,” she said.
Just for fun, then, I called the Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center where I had gone on that early-morning outing with Russell Duerksen. Education Coordinator Deb Hauswald took my call, and before our conversation was finished she was expressing the hope that our organizations might collaborate in planning an event for visually impaired bird watchers. I would mark that down as a welcoming response. Local Audubon Society chapters and other bird watching clubs exist almost everywhere—and are an exceptional resource.
The World Birding Center in Edinburgh, Texas has made birding by people who are visually impaired a special focus. The center has developed birding field guides in braille, and has organized sessions in which expert birders assist people who are blind in learning bird calls and songs.(7)
It is likely that just about any bird-watching club or Audubon Society chapter, given the opportunity, would welcome the chance to guide a person or a group of people who are visually impaired in learning the skills of bird watching. A simple request is usually all it takes.
Footnotes for “Watching Birds by Ear”
1 Fitzpatrick and Neville are quoted in “A Sight for Sensitive Ears” by Tina Kelley, available at www.audubonmagazine.org.
2 From “Bird Songs” by Gareth Huw Davies, available at www.pbs.org.
3 “Birding by Ear Basics” by Melissa Mayntz, available at www.about.com.
4 Elliott’s extensive library of nature sounds can be found at www.musicofnature.org.
5 Gilbert wrote about her experience in the October-December 2006 issue of Bay Nature magazine, available online at www.baynature.org.