Do You Hear What I Hear?

The biggest “leap” of birding ability I made came when I started to really pay attention to the birds I was hearing, as well as the birds I was seeing. Most “expert” birders do much, if not most, of their observing by ear. Personally, I would say that sometimes well over half the birds I record and observe are first discovered by hearing them.

photo towhee-singing.jpg
..It’s just that I’d rather… just… SING!

I recently had a bit of a health scare. Last year, I noticed I was having to ask people to repeat what they were saying, and I developed tinnitus. I had a series of hearing tests over the course of several months which seemed to verify some hearing loss, especially in higher frequencies. I started to wonder if I was missing some bird calls and songs on my birding hikes.

It’s normal, as we age, to start losing our higher frequency hearing ability. From what I’ve read, this actually starts to happen earlier, on average, than we might think – by our 30s many of us are already losing the highest range. I had been blessed so far to have kept most of my higher frequency hearing, but it seemed that now as I entered my 40s, it was catching up.

Chart showing average hearing loss by age and gender. You can see that as a person ages, the ability to hear higher frequency sounds drops fastest.

The effect of losing one’s hearing really hit me when I’ve bumped into some very experienced birders in their 70s and early 80s. Their visual acuity never ceases to amaze me, but I noticed that, even with my nascent hearing loss, they were not reacting to most of the bird calls around us. On one visit to Turkey Creek, there was a massive commotion of Northern Cardinals giving their alarm calls. Interspersed with their calls were those of at least two other bird species. After seeing the person I was with not react at all, I hesitantly asked, “I wonder what all that noise is over?” To which my companion blankly stared at me and said, “Oh, what, you’re hearing some birds?” Hearing some birds? It sounded like the birds were expecting the Apocalypse!

We’ll all have to face up to the effects of aging, and for birders that means at some point many of us will start to lose a range of hearing that includes call notes of most warblers, sparrows and Cardinalids (as well as others).

For now, though, I have been given a bit of a reprieve. My last hearing test showed recovery of my high-frequency hearing to near to previoius levels (though my tinnitus hasn’t disappeared), and I’ve been able to still hear warblers and sparrows call while flying high overhead before dawn, the bickering of cardinals, and even the quietly beautiful bubbling of gnatcatchers.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher softly singing.

I can only hope that when my hearing starts to fade that I can sharpen my visual ability like those of my experienced birding colleagues, who still seem to get whole-hearted enjoyment out of watching birds.

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