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The Voices of Birds, the Smell of the Forest

by Przemyslaw Barszcz

Przemyslaw Barszcz walks with a group of teens in the spring forest.From the Editor: Przemyslaw Barszcz is an educator with the Polish Nature and Forestry Foundation in Krakow, Poland. A few months ago he wrote to ask if readers of Future Reflections would like to learn about the foundation's program to teach blind students about the natural world. Here is his story.

Is it possible to observe birds without seeing them? The term "birdwatching" commonly refers to one of the most popular forms of outdoor activity. However, if you focus entirely on watching the birds, you may miss the richness of information to be found in bird calls and songs. Birding by ear is a delightful and gratifying way to explore the woods and fields.

In 2012 the Polish Nature and Forestry Foundation, together with students from the Special Educational Center for Blind Children in Krakow, launched a program called Voices of Birds and the Smell of the Forest. Since the beginning, we have met monthly at the center with a group of young people who are interested in birds.

The science of ornithology is based largely on the sense of hearing. Both hobbyists and professionals learn to identify birds by recognizing their distinctive voices. In the case of many species, listening to vocalizations is the most effective way to gather information. Some bird species, such as the corncrake and bittern, lead such secretive lives among the grasses and reeds that few professional ornithologists have ever seen them. However, the presence of these elusive species can easily be detected by a person who knows their voices and knows where and when to listen for them.

The skills of birding by ear apply all over the world. Much of the time birds don't want to be seen, but they often want to be heard. Voice is their primary means of communication, and bird sounds convey a lot of information. We can learn to decipher much that is hidden in the voices of birds.

In addition to revealing the species, the voice of a bird includes a great deal of important information. A female calls differently from a male, and the calls of young birds are quite unlike those of adults. The warning voice of a bird that has spotted a hawk or a cat is very different from the voice of a male seeking a mate or the cry of a hungry nestling. By interpreting bird voices, we can learn which bird species inhabit an area, how abundant they are, and whether they are breeding or migrating. We can also find out what birds are doing at a given moment--whether they are looking for a partner, feeding their young, warning others of danger, or migrating.

A child’s hand examines a human-made replica of an oriole’s nest.A person who knows how to interpret the voices of birds may even be able to tell where migratory birds have passed the winter. For example, a birder in the UK was listening to starlings during early spring. He concluded that the starlings had arrived recently from wintering grounds in Africa. After a few moments he pinpointed their exact wintering grounds, announcing that the birds had returned from the Sous Valley in Morocco. How did he know? Starlings imitate the voices of other birds. These British starlings imitated the song of a redstart subspecies that is endemic to the Sous Valley. The Sous Valley is the only place on earth where this subspecies can be found.

One day as I wandered through the mountainous forest I imitated the whistle of the pygmy owl. After a moment I heard the warning calls of small birds called tits. I knew that the tits recognized the voice of this rare predator. It was a sign that I had found the pygmy owl's hunting territory. Indeed, that evening I heard the pygmy owl's hunting call!

Another time, as I sat in the living room, I listened to the tweeting of sparrows at the bird feeder. Suddenly the sparrows gave nervous rattling calls, and I heard the whirr of wings. I predicted that in a moment my neighbor's cat would enter my terrace. Thanks to hearing the birds, I knew the cat was coming before I saw it.

The willow warbler and the chiffchaff are small birds that inhabit the forests of Europe. Visually it is very difficult for even an expert to tell these two species apart. They belong to the same family, and both have slender beaks and grayish-green and white plumage. To make identification even more difficult, they are both very lively birds, constantly darting here and there in search of insects. Yet identification proved to be easy for the students in our classes at the Center for Blind Children. These two species have completely different voices. After hearing them only a few times, the children could tell a willow warbler from a chiffchaff in the early spring forest.

Knowledge of bird voices and sensitivity to the sounds of nature can help a blind child become oriented in the environment. Outdoor activity improves health and fitness. With experience and knowledge, a blind child might become a birding guide or a nature scientist in the future. One modern method of scientific research is the recording of the natural sounds in a given area such as a tropical rainforest. The recording is analyzed to reveal the prevalence and activity of various species. One such research project, the Automated Remote Biodiversity Monitoring Network (ARBIMON), is being conducted by the University of Puerto Rico. *1

The identification of bird species and behavior by sound, along with the implementation of scientific tools and methods, has been the main goal of our work with blind and visually impaired children. Above all, we want the children to gain an appreciation of the beauty of nature.

Fifty children at the Special Education Center for Blind Children have participated in the project. We divided the students into three groups. First each group had four classes at the school. During these classes, the children gathered information and learned a number of skills. Among the areas of focus were the following:

The children learned that beech wood is much heavier and harder than pine wood. They found that juniper needles sting when touched, while fir needles are soft. They learned that the essential oil of spruce differs from the essential oil of pine. They even had a chance to taste a ramsons, or bear's garlic, a wild plant related to chives.

After the classes we went on several field trips. Each group took three excursions: First, to the early spring forest; second, to the Fish Ponds; and third, to the late spring forest.

Two distinct seasons in the forest showed us a wide spectrum of birds. We chose Las Wolski (Wolski Forest) for both of our forest trips. The forest has a natural character and a lot of old, hollow trees that attract many bird species. We identified a lot of interesting birds, many of which the children heard for the first time. The children were thrilled to hear the voice of the thrush, which they had only known before from descriptions in books.

During our spring trips to the forest we heard and recognized more than twenty bird species. We heard the cuckoo, whistling nuthatch, Eurasian blackcap, great tit, buzzard, rare black woodpecker, and many others.

For our other trip we visited the area of Spytkowice and Zator in the valley of the Vistula, where a vast complex of ponds was built in the Middle Ages. It is one of the most interesting places for birding in Poland and in all of Europe. My friend, British professional birder David Lindo, has described this site in his blog article "Heaven in a Fish Pond."*2 At the Fish Ponds we observed the Eurasian reed warbler, great reed warbler, common reed bunting, graylag goose, western marsh harrier, white stork, and several kinds of grebes and terns. The true curiosities were the black stork, bittern, black-crowned night heron, and the smallest European heron, the little bittern.

At the end of the program, we met for a picnic in Wolski Forest. We gathered around a bonfire and grilled sausages.

Our project was co-financed by the Regional Fund for Environmental Protection and Water Management in Krakow. We also obtained the honorary patronage of the Polish Minister of the Environment. If you would like more information about our program, please write to us at [email protected].


  1. "Capturing the Sounds of Biodiversity," National Public Radio, July 19, 2013.  <www.npr.org/2013/07/19/203606166/capturing-the-sounds-of-biodiversity>
  2. "Heaven in a Fish Pond," <http://urbanitybirder.blogspot.com/2009/04/heaven-in-fish-pond.html>

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