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Birding Without Ears

By Ranger Steve Mueller

An American Woodcock flew over my head this spring and landed 100 feet away. It began its courtship buzz-like pneet. I cupped my hands around my ears to listen. Meanwhile behind me, I heard a distant cow from the Phelps farm. When I turned, I realized the sound was from a woodcock 50 feet away. Many birders would think that is ridiculous. How could one confuse a woodcock and a cow?

I saw nighthawks return earlier than normal in spring 1975. Experts wanted to know if I was confusing woodcocks and nighthawks. This sounds ridiculous unless one knows the two sound similar. My identification was visual and correct.

Tracking bird sounds has become more challenging. As my hearing declines, I still hear birds and look in their direction but have discovered the sound to be closer than I thought. I needed to recalibrate sound to distance measurements. It also became difficult to triangulate the bird’s location. It’s like vision with one eye and not having depth perception.

It has been frustrating but sound never made much sense for me. I have always depended on vision for identification. At best I consider myself 80 percent proficient with sound identification and that is not adequate for documenting species.

High school and church junior choir directors both asked me to mouth singing in concerts. I sat at the piano to match notes but could not. Both directors said I was tone deaf. To sing in the school choir a C average was required. I had a B on written work and D on vocal work. The C average allowed me in concerts but I was asked not to sing.

Breeding bird surveyors stop for three minutes, identify birds by song and move to another location. Its great for covering considerable territory in limited time. That is not where my abilities can contribute. It also is not how I enjoy birding. I prefer watching birds, their behavior, and associating them with habitats. I’m too antsy to sit in observation blinds like photographers or hunters. I miss details they observe.

I could learn more if I observed with the patience of a photographer in a blind. There is a place for different kinds of observers. I seldom bird watch with others so I have not improved auditory skills well. Many improve listening skills with bird tapes. I don’t. When listening to songs in nature, I often do not locate the bird and leave without associating song and bird.

I first discovered the wonder and beauty of bird song as a teenager. A particular bird species became a favorite when I heard it on an annual fishing trip with my brother. We camped, fished, and explored nature niches. It was ten years before I discovered it was a Veery making that most wonderful song. The bird remains a favorite.

Nature education has been by fumbling my way in wild places with limited direction or help. I must qualify that statement. I worked on a field biology degree in college where instructors honed my skills and provided direction. However it was personal time in the field developing skills that allowed me to become a knowledgeable naturalist. I never learned to make sense of sound and it remains a mystery. I love music and bird songs. Perhaps that is because it makes no sense. It is a wonderful mystery. Knowing the maker would be nice. It is great for those able to recognize bird songs.

Empathize with those of us with little sound intelligence or those that lost the physical ability to hear a broad range of sound. I retain sound range but must reduce the distance by 50% or more to hear what younger ears are catching. I seldom know the names of music groups or bird songsters but I love their music. I simply marvel and enjoy the music without understanding or knowing the maker. Having low sound intelligence does not equate with lack of appreciation. Others like me marvel at bird sound with pleasure but little understanding.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433. 616-696-1753.

 

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