Hearing-impaired Birders Turn up the Chirp

Hearing-impaired Birders Turn up the Chirp

By Jerry Uhlman

Editor: Don’t you have to hear well to be a bird-watcher? It’s called “birdwatching”, but don’t you need to hear their calls to find and help identify them? So how can a person with hearing loss be a successful birdwatcher?

This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and is reprinted with permission.

Across the United States, there are nearly 46 million bird-watchers, according to a recent report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The hobby is enjoyed by more than one in five adults.

This popular pastime demands good eyesight as well as hearing for the fullest enjoyment. Birders usually rely on binoculars to spot and identify various species, and quality binoculars often can compensate for vision shortcomings.

Hearing loss is a different problem. As bird-watchers age, many face gradual hearing loss that decreases the ability to identify species by songs and calls.

Most hearing aids amplify frequencies that improve the lower sound registers of speech but are relatively ineffective with the high frequencies of birds.

Some birders have turned to auditory-assisting devices adapted to aid outdoor sportsmen and military or search-and-rescue operations. But most outdoors-oriented devices rely on bulky earphone headsets and handheld, cone-shaped dishes to draw in sounds to amplify for the wearer.

Two second-generation digitally enhanced mechanical aids, however, offer more promise. Walker’s Digital Game Ear is a device worn behind one ear that is designed to digitally process sound for clarity with little or no distortion.

A plastic tube connects the digital unit to an earplug that fits in the ear canal. Powered by a button-cell battery, it increases hearing up to seven times, weighs less than a quarter ounce and contains a handy volume control and on-off switch.

The other is SongFinder, a new unit designed especially for birders with high-frequency hearing loss.

I recently accompanied two Richmond Audubon Society members who have high-frequency hearing loss, John Coe and Bob Coles, into the field to evaluate the Game Ear and SongFinder.

We chose two familiar birding sites. Each tried the Game Ear first and then the SongFinder near quiet spots as well as those with plenty of background noise.

Both found that although Walker’s Digital Game Ear amplified some bird songs, many high-frequency songs remained out of earshot.

Because the unit is used in only one ear, neither tester found it helpful in judging the distance or direction of the amplified call. Because all sounds are amplified equally, many unwanted background sounds such as leaves underfoot, watercraft on the river and nearby voices often overpowered and drowned out high-pitched bird songs.

In contrast to the tiny Game Ear fitted behind one ear, the SongFinder base unit is clipped to a belt, and earphones rest over both ears. The unit has a switch that lowers digitized sound to three levels, allowing the user to customize the pitch. The lower the level, the more sounds enter the range of the human voice and are audible to the user.

Both testers were amazed by the sounds that flooded their ears with the SongFinder. Each birder could hear songs and calls that had been beyond their range of hearing.

To Coe, who seemed to have less hearing loss, many of the digitized bird songs sounded like crows and dogs barking. Coe found the digitally altered bird songs and calls unreal and distracting.

A whole new realm of sound, however, reached Coles’ ears – a cornucopia of unfamiliar and exciting chirping, twittering and warbling.

Coles has had significant hearing loss over the years that limits his recognition of bird calls to those loudest and nearest. Once he had become accustomed to the initial cacophony of sound that the SongFinder brought to his ears, he marveled at what he had missed and was amazed at the layers of competing bird calls that filled the air.

In our admittedly limited field tests, the Game Ear amplified sound that assisted both Audubon testers to hear out-of-range bird songs. But because it boosted all surrounding sounds, the Game Ear would be most effective in a quiet habitat where unwanted sound did not compete.

In the field, the utility of the SongFinder will depend on the degree of birder’s hearing loss. Individuals with marked loss may be delighted to again hear the songs and calls enjoyed long ago or discover those never heard before. Birders with less severe hearing loss will probably find the digitized sound distracting and unhelpful.

Both units deserve a trial to compensate for high-frequency hearing loss and restore the enjoyment of out-of-range bird songs.

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