A Sight for Sensitive Ears
A new generation
of audio technology
By Tina Kelley
Early on a bright July morning, on a sloping hill above Washington State's Padilla Bay, Lloyd Demcoe is suiting up, attaching his headphones securely to his cap, checking his batteries, and emptying the half-dozen pockets of his homemade green apron. Tapes, microphone, tape recorder, and mosquito netting are accounted for. The 71-year-old retired counselor and former minister is ready to go birding.
Demcoe doesn't carry a field guide or binoculars, because a hunting accident left him blind at 17. ("A man thought I was a bear, and that changed everything," he says.) So when he sets out with his wife, Primilia, aiming to add to his life list of 200 or so bird species, he carries a tape recorder and a highly sensitive microphone.
Later, back home in Westbank, British Columbia, he will play any unfamiliar calls or songs over and over, faster and slower, until he can match them to sounds on his audio field-guide collections--the same tapes I play in my car on long trips. "You hear about 80 percent of the birds," says Demcoe, "but you don't see 80 percent of the birds."
By listening carefully, birders can learn more about a bird than they can by reading dry field-guide descriptions of habitat and range. When birders focus on listening, they can tap in to the information birds themselves rely on during such crucial activities as protecting territory and choosing a mate. For instance, female birds can tell a lot about the age and vigor of a potential mate by his song, says John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, in Ithaca, New York, and an Audubon Society board member. Female mockingbirds prefer males that have large song repertories, because virtuosic singing is a sign of a more practiced, mature bird. In many species, male birds singing in their territories send messages about how comfortable they are with their status. "What they're communicating to each other, by all these sounds they make, turns out to be very sophisticated and complex stuff, even though it sounds like chips and burps," he says. "Armed with that knowledge, even a casual birder can go out and enjoy a deeper understanding of the social arms races and lovefests that are going on out there."
Fitzpatrick studies the Florida scrub jay, and he can tell whether it is sounding an alarm call about a ground predator like a snake or a raccoon, or an aerial predator like a hawk. Many birdsongs, he has found, translate to messages similar to those that humans send. "It's not as deep a lexicon or as complex a set of cognitive skills as we have, but there's a lot of stating of social position and eliciting responses from others done in birdsongs," he says.
Howard Brokaw, another Audubon board member and chairman of the board of the American Bird Conservancy, notes how an individual bird's song changes according to circumstances. "There are some birds that do vary their calls depending on what their problem or emotion is at the time," he says. Crows, he finds, are particularly expressive, so much so that he can tell just from listening if crows are mobbing a hawk or an owl. "I can't describe the difference exactly, but a crow is much more excited when it's going after a great horned owl."
Some blind people dispute the commonly held belief that they develop more sensitive hearing to compensate for their blindness. Certainly, many sighted birders have become exceedingly adept at identifying birds by ear. Fitzpatrick recalls the listening prowess of one eminent birder, the late Ted Parker, who said that he tried to filter out nearby birds and concentrate on more distant ones, which were harder to identify.
"Blind birders probably do this more instinctively than sighted birders do, and can hear birds at various distances," Fitzpatrick says. "They're perceiving auditorily a bigger dimension to the landscape than we do when we're watching."
But in an early morning that smells of low tide, Demcoe is bothered by sounds from several miles above him. "Wherever you go, there are dumb airplanes," he says. By the nearby Breazeale Interpretive Center, the sound of a swinging flagpole rope interrupts the calls of white-crowned sparrows. He carries his special parabolic microphone system--a half-sphere of plastic, about two feet high, that can magnify sounds by hundreds of times. I try it on, and the birds come through, startlingly loud and clear. The device makes Demcoe particularly sensitive to noises made by human activity, which mar his recordings. In a grove of western red cedars we are captivated by a Swainson's thrush, whose sound is, for me, the theme song of the Northwest summer. I love its slightly metallic, otherworldly song, like air drawn through freshly flossed teeth. Demcoe smiles as he sifts the air for less familiar species.
"I work at it, and listen," he says. "I do it for my own pleasure. It expands my knowledge, to be able to pick out birds I can identify. It's fun for me." When he's ready to move on, he raises a cupped hand, and his wife, who will guide him, positions her shoulder under his fingers. They have been married for 46 years, and met on what she calls "a double-blind date."
"It's beautiful in the bush, it's cleansing for me, and it really unites me to the whole natural thing," Demcoe says as we stroll along. "It's where you belong."
Demcoe is not alone in his passion for the sounds of birds. Many sighted birdwatchers augment their knowledge of various species by listening to tapes of their songs--the music gives certainty when it's too hard to base a positive identification on a barely visible wing bar, eye ring, or estimated head size. Today an increasing number of blind naturalists are able to enjoy the variety of life in the woods and waterways by using audio technology.
Demcoe and John Neville of Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, attended a natural sound-recording workshop together in California that was conducted by the Cornell Lab. Neville has collected and sold some of his own recordings, grouped by habitats that include the Canadian Rockies and British Columbia's Okanogan Valley.
In 1975, when he moved to British Columbia from England, where his grandfather had first taken him birding, he was distressed to find that recordings of birds were limited to eastern species.
"I try to include a little bit of the language of the birds," Neville says of his recordings, noting as an example the three main calls of the female red-winged blackbird, which vary according to whether the birds are heading into a territory, out of a territory, or staying put. "As well as the pleasure, from our perspective, of hearing the songs and being able to identify them, I try to get a little bit of the meaning of what the birds are telling each other.
"If we're outside, we may be able to see a bird within the 180 degrees of vision our eyes give us," he says. "But our hearing makes us as aware, as if we're listening to 360 degrees, and often at much greater distances than we'd be able to see and in areas we can't see into, like the dense foliage in the canopy of a tree."
Neville, who is blind, remembers recording a northern water thrush in Alberta's Jasper National Park. "Every time I hear it, it makes me think of that beautiful lake tucked up in the mountains," he says. Then there were the golden-crowned sparrows. "They've got a long kind of note that they bend in a way that a jazz musician would envy."
Greg Budney, the curator of the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab, admires Neville's fourth CD (he has since done a fifth). "It's really nicely done, and area-specific. It's nice material, and I think it's very useful for a visually impaired person to learn from."
Then Budney corrects himself. "It really is the same. When we've taught blind people the [recording] course, the only trick is properly describing where the control knobs are on the equipment. They have such acute hearing they can get to what's of interest. Their only concern is what lies between them and the bird. And then often they're not worried about themselves but about deep-sixing the equipment," he says. "We like to think it's remarkable, but for them it's routine."
Other tapes captivated Elizabeth Causey, a teenager in Macon, Georgia, who became blind when she was three months old but can now recognize more than 400 bird species by ear and distinguish between the calls of males and females. She knows, for instance, about 15 songs of the Carolina wren alone, says her mother, Miki Causey.
Elizabeth's grandmother introduced her to the sound of the mourning dove when the girl was four or five, and Elizabeth later became a huge fan of Lang Elliott of Ithaca, New York, who produces tapes of birds, frogs, toads, and night noises. Elliott also put together, with the help of the Cornell Lab, a two-cassette collection called "A Birdsong Tutor for Visually Handicapped Individuals." According to Elizabeth, "I used to get up at 6:30 A.M. and listen to every tape of his for two solid hours." Later, when she was on vacation in New York, the two met. "When we first got him on the phone she was more excited than if he'd been a movie star," says Miki Causey. "She was so excited she couldn't talk." Elizabeth was able to identify birds from Elliott's field tapes, which at the time were not commercially available. Her favorite bird is the killdeer, which she can imitate handily.
For people with limited or no vision who want to explore the sounds of the woods without the help of a recording device, the Green Mountain Audubon Society recently refurbished its Sensory Trail, at its nature center in Huntington, Vermont. The trail features Braille and large-print interpretive signs connected by ropes. It was rerouted to start and finish at the center's porch, so that the blind or visually impaired could explore it on their own. Walkers are invited to touch and taste various plants and to listen for commonly heard birds.
Richard Erickson, a visually impaired retiree who helped with the project, enjoys visiting the trail himself. "I'm a mentor to a 16-year-old blind kid at Burlington High School," he says, "and at the grand opening he went around and absolutely loved it. I know that for young adults that sense of getting away and just being let alone, to walk around safely, is very important."
Back at Padilla Bay, Demcoe recalls how he spent his own teenage years. "When I was a kid I used to just love being out in the woods," says Demcoe, who attended a one-room school outside Winnipeg, Manitoba. "This whole thing reconnected me to it," he says of his recording hobby.
As Demcoe and I head out from the woods into a meadow, we hear a bird singing a song that sounds like fitzbew--something we think identifies it as a flycatcher. "I know what he is, but I don't know his name," Demcoe says. "We must be farther from the water, because of the flycatcher."
He has more trouble with shorter calls than with songs--identifying calls is like naming that tune with one note as a clue. "That's the fun of recording--at least you can go home and figure the darn birds out," he says. One of his favorite finds: a flock of yellow-headed blackbirds, west of Creston, British Columbia. "'They were thick as fleas," he says. "At times they sound more like a donkey braying--they're really funny. They're the clowns of birds."
He tilts his head back and takes in the air, which smells of salt and cedar and carries so many messages from the dark woods. "If you listen to it long enough, they become a part of you," he says. "You hear them long enough, and it becomes part of your own self. The information is on the unconscious level, like the way mothers hear their children's cries."
Tina Kelley, a metro reporter for The New York Times, has written about tidepools and rainforests for Audubon.
© 2002 NASI
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