What’s That? The Art of Bird Listening

Posted by Allan R. Schneider | 05/22/2018 | General, Stories
Yellow-headed black bird with its wings extended, vocalizing.

We stop short, folks whisper, “What’s that?” It’s the unmistakable rattle of the beloved kingfisher, the rascal of the water birds, zooming along the river. It went by too fast; my restricted peripheral vision couldn’t locate it, but it caused me to smile. As a beginner two years ago, it was the first species I identified by sound. Shortly before that, at a meeting of the Treasure Valley Chapter of the NFB of Idaho, Steve Bouffard, a local ornithologist with the Orma J. Smith Museum of Natural History at The College of Idaho, introduced the idea of taking blind people birding by ear. Although never interested before, I was intrigued. I became the liaison, and since then a real-life, visually-impaired birder! And why not? Even when sighted birders do official bird counts, 90 percent of the birds are identified by sound because foliage naturally camouflages birds. Today we are guiding a group of blind and visually-impaired people along a path on the north shore of Veterans’ Pond near the Boise River in Boise, Idaho. Minutes before the kingfisher, we were startled by the primordial grunting of a cormorant on a low perch over the pond. Some were startled; it was more the sound of a dinosaur than a bird. Two birds, neither one “tweeted,” and we moved on.

Suddenly Steve hushes us and we listen: it’s a western tanager, it sounds like a robin’s spring “cheer-up cheerily, cheer-up cheerily,” only hoarser. It won’t be here long; it’s on its spring migration to the mountains just north of us. Identifying birds by their calls and songs sounds daunting, but it’s really not. At a bird feeder, there’ll be house finches, chickadees, and sparrows for sure. Start small; first learn their calls and songs. Then choose two more common birds in your area, learn their songs and calls, listen for them, and . . . well, you’re hooked! Once again, the rhythmic sound of canes on the path checks, there’s another sound, and several people roll their eyes and giggle. It’s the harsh, incessant “oka-wee-wee, oka-wee-wee, oka-wee-wee” of the yellow-headed blackbirds that one of our members already declared, “Isn’t at all pretty like I came here to hear!” But another blind participant said that if he wasn’t here today, he’d probably just be sitting in his chair.

The insistent, subdued stumbling “kar-r-r-r-o-o-o, kar-r-r-r-o-o-o, kar-r-r-r-o-o-o” of sandhill cranes flying overhead hushes us without Steve’s urging. Maybe that haunting, caressing loveliness is closer to what she “came here to hear.” Steve grins at our immersion; he is enjoying the walk as much as we are. He is not atypical among birders. There are Audubon societies and other avid birding groups that love to share their passion. In our case, Steve came to us, but we could have contacted birders in our area on our own. And since we’ve started, a local group gave us a grant for bird skull replicas for blind people to feel a bird’s shape, and another invited us to bird banding and measuring activities.

A rascal again rattles downstream, and no one needs to ask, “What’s that?” Once you know, you know. Our group will likely never forget the enchanting call of the cranes, the grunt of the cormorant, the rattle of the kingfisher, and for sure not the incessantly harsh cackle of the yellow-headed blackbird. And later, as we near the vehicles, there is yet another rattle, and I again smile, remembering hearing that and two years ago asking, “What’s that?” for the only time.

From the Editor: Allan Schneider is an active Federationist, treasurer of his local chapter, and editor of the Idaho state newsletter. One of his favorite hobbies is birding by ear.

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