American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Fall 2016       LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES

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Birding by Ear and Beyond

by Donna Posont

Donna Posont shows a boy a large bird’s nest close to the ground.From the Editor: Thousands of books and apps have been designed to help birders identify avian species visually, by observing coloration, shape, and flight patterns. However, a birder need not rely upon visual methods of identification. In this article, Donna Posont describes a program she helped to start for budding naturalists who are blind. Donna was the winner of an NFB National Scholarship in 2016.

My journey toward a greater understanding of the natural world led me to the University of Michigan-Dearborn in the summer of 2008. I thought that if I found a way to learn about nature as a blind person, I could learn to share that knowledge with others who are blind.

As I began my learning in the environmental studies program, I also began to share my knowledge with others. I learned to engage my senses more than ever before while I was in the woods or following a nature trail.

I became fascinated with birds during an internship in the summer of 2009. I was teaching nature to blind children at Camp Tuhsmeheta in western Michigan. I was looking for an area of study that was "blind friendly," and birds provided an obvious choice. Each species has its unique sounds. Furthermore, birds communicate with others of their own species by using a variety of songs and calls.

The more I learned, the more I wanted to know and share. I wanted to learn about birds' nesting and feeding habits. I wanted to find out which birds would migrate and which would stay and survive our harsh Michigan winters. I wanted to discover how birds teach their young to sing and fly. My questions went on and on.

In 2010 I began to meet monthly with a group of blind people, primarily children. Together we started to identify birds by sound. I came up with several learning tools and memory aids. The first I called "Name That Tune." This teaching method uses mnemonics to put human words to each birdsong. For example, a northern cardinal can be heard to sing, "Pretty, pretty, pretty," or "Wit, wit? Cheer, cheer, cheer!"

Since the northern cardinal can be credited with at least forty distinct sounds, it is important to use my second learning tool to identify its calls. I refer to this tool as "Birding Charades" or "Sounds Like." When a cardinal is using the call note, it sounds like two marbles clacking together.

Finally, "Change Your Tune" serves as a learning tool and memory aid. For example, the American robin sounds like he is singing, "Cheer up, cheerily, cheer up, cheerily." Two other birds that can be identified by the same mnemonics are the scarlet tanager and the rose-breasted grosbeak. The scarlet tanager changes his tune to sound like a robin with a sore throat; its melody sounds more raspy or scratchy than the song of the robin. While the rose-breasted grosbeak shares the same mnemonics, he sounds as though he has taken singing lessons; his song is smoother and more melodious than the robin's.

Not only the songbirds can be identified with these tools. For example, the barred owl seems to say, "Who, who, who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?" Another raptor, the red-tailed hawk, can be heard screaming, "Watch out!"

A few birds can be remembered as name-sayers. Among these are the black-capped chickadee, the eastern phoebe, and the wood pewee. Some birds, such as the gray catbird, are named because of the sounds they make. The hummingbird family is named because of the humming sounds made by the birds' rapidly moving wings.

The examples are almost endless, but it is important for students to learn the tools for remembering. Each student can also come up with his or her own mnemonics and other memory aids.

Eventually I partnered with the University of Michigan-Dearborn Environmental Interpretive Center to provide a course called "Birding by Ear and Beyond." The "beyond" part opens the program to the sensory exploration of all of nature's beauty. We have learned to identify frogs and insects by their sounds. We also have learned tree identification without the sense of sight.

The natural world provides limitless learning opportunities, and it is all available to those of us who are blind. We simply develop alternative techniques for learning. As we engage our senses we can experience the wonders of this world.

I have sometimes been heard to say, "It's not about the birds." The confidence gained by success through identifying birds by sound is immeasurable. Not all students may grow up to become naturalists, but all of them will need confidence in order to apply for jobs and pursue their dreams. As we follow the trails in the woods and wetlands, we gain skills in the use of our canes and dog guides. Navigating these trails provides students with opportunities to strengthen their resolve to live the lives they want.

Whether or not these blind birders seek a future in the STEM fields, they will be equipped more fully to enter any field of study through their success in the program at the university. Because of the "Birding by Ear and Beyond" program, students who are blind have the opportunity to embrace the natural world by engaging their senses in exploration. The more we know about the environment, the more we understand the importance of protecting ecosystems and life on the planet Earth. This program gives those who are blind a chance to learn about the natural world so they can be capable of making responsible choices in the future.

When students love to learn about nature, they inevitably learn to love nature itself. There is no end to the joy and wonder waiting right outside the door.

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