My Twitter friend Fred Wurtzel, an avid blind birder from Michigan, alerted me to a new “blind birding” video on CBS News, entitled Birding by ear: The birdwatchers who see by listening, featuring expert birder Donna Posant. Donna is the field services director for Opportunities Unlimited for the Blind (OUB) and a widely recognized “birding-by-ear” teacher and naturalist.
You can learn more about Donna and the birding-by-ear experience by watching and/or listening to the video (with closed-captioning) on the CBS News website.
Opportunities Unlimited for the Blind (OUB), through OUB Camps, provides outdoor education and recreation specifically adapted for individuals who are blind or visually impaired. “Birding-by-Ear” is a series of sessions held monthly in lower Michigan to “introduce the wonders of identifying birds by their songs for children, youth, and adults who are visually impaired or blind.”
As a dedicated longtime “birder,” I also read – with great interest – a story by Donna in the Spring 2012 issue of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology newsletter, entitled Sensing Nature’s Beauty in Sound, Scent, and Touch. Here’s an excerpt:
Without sight, our other senses are fine-tuned to nature’s rhythms and we find ourselves in harmony as she reveals herself to us through touch, sound, and scent.
Behind the thick undergrowth a catbird is claiming his territory. Up over the wooded hill there is an ever present chorus of Eastern Wood-Pewees, Blue Jays, Red-eyed Vireos, American Robins, and the always-delightful Black-capped Chickadees. The occasional Ovenbird is calling for the “teacher-teacher-teacher.”
In the middle of it all we hear the “yanking” of the White-breasted Nuthatch, walking upside-down to find his meal. We heard a Barred Owl here recently during one of our jaunts. He didn’t stay in one spot for long, probably busy hunting for a mouse. The kids love this bird’s questioning call: “Who, who cooks for you, who cooks for you now?”
More about Blind Birding
Here’s a helpful explanation from South Birder Magazine (not available online), in an article about the Texas-based Outta-Sight Song Birders, entitled “Blind Birding Takes Flight”:
There’s an “Aha!” moment when you mention blind birding to those folks who know the difference between an Eastern Towhee and an American Robin. It’s that moment when the avid birder realizes that the sense they use most often in their sport is not seeing, but hearing.
Instead of binoculars, digiscopes and field guides, blind or visually impaired birders use reference CDs, mini cassette recorders and sighted tour guides to identify different birds by their sounds. For the [blind] birdwatcher, a bird’s song or call is as valuable a tool as the color of the bird’s eye ring, feathers and breast is to the sighted birder.
“The best analogy I can use is that when you start birding, it’s about 80 percent visual and 20 percent audio,” says Jim Booker, naturalist at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. “I’ve been a birdwatcher for 28 years and as you get more experienced, it becomes more like 80 percent audio and 20 percent visual, and you’re lifting your binoculars less and less.”
Listen to Bird Calls
As a (sighted) birder myself, I know this is true. I often hear the distinctive birdsong long before the bird is in my sights. Try it yourself by listening to the following bird calls:
- Black-capped Chickadee
- Mourning Dove (my favorite!)
- American Robin
- Chipping Sparrow
Additional Blind Birding Information
Throughout the United States, many groups are beginning to acknowledge the benefits of blind birding. In Idaho, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service sponsors birding trips, and the Massachusetts Audubon Society has partnered with the Lowell Association for the Blind to lead birding-by-ear trips in the Park River National Wildlife Refuge.
The Great Texas Birding Classic: Blind Birders’ Tip Sheet provides guidelines for sighted birders who accompany blind birders, and the New York Times profiled the Outta-Sight Song Birders in For a Few Birders in Texas, the Victory Is in the Trill. (Clever title, wouldn’t you say?)
You can find more information about a variety of outdoor recreational activities for adults who are blind or visually impaired at Recreation & Leisure on VisionAware.org.