Share on Twitter
Print this article
Share by email
Eh ? What are you saying, little bird?
My saddest moment as an ornithologist was when, about 10 years ago, I saw a golden-crowned kinglet sing. The bird was only about 10 feet away when I saw its little body vibrate with the sound as it opened and closed its beak, but I couldn’t hear a note.
According to the Mayo Clinic, nearly half of Americans age 65 and older have some degree of hearing loss. For the most part the loss occurs at higher frequencies rather than at all levels, so we can usually hear someone’s low frequency vowel sounds after losing the high frequency consonants, which makes them sound like they’re mumbling.
As a birder, I was heartbroken to lose this Golden Crowned Wren with brown creepers, cedar waxwings and black warblers. But birdsong is important to many more people than us birdwatchers. A hearing aid company, Widex, surveyed people in eight different countries around the world and found that birdsong was among the top three most loved sounds in all cultures, along with music and human voices. All the countries surveyed ranked birdsong as the highest natural sound, and in the UK birdsong ranked above music and human voices!
In April 2015, I consulted an audiologist. Before the appointment, I looked at the spectrographs of some birdsong that I couldn’t hear anymore – the frequencies were mostly above 6000 Hz. (The Warbler’s Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle has spectrographs for every North American Warbler, a family with very high frequency songs as well as mid-range songs.) My test results confirmed severe hearing loss above this frequency , but only minimal to moderate loss at mid-ranges.
The digital Phonak hearing aids that my hearing care professional has programmed for me, as well as other high-end devices, have two settings that are easy to switch between. The first is intended for everyday use. For me, it’s the perfect setting for hard-to-hear movies or TV dialogue, loud restaurants, or soft-spoken companions on car journeys. My second setting is programmed for birds.
The first bird I heard through them was a robin. I thought I could hear the robins just fine, but with the hearing aids their songs were much brighter – the high frequency harmonics contribute to the beautiful quality of their song. And now, instead of amorphous background noise with a few identifiable sounds, I can once again distinguish individual birds singing simultaneously. In the same way that glasses make our vision clearer, digital hearing aids make sounds clearer.
The hearing in one of my ears has always been more sensitive than the other. My hearing aids, each programmed for its own ear, balance the sound, so now locating the birds I hear is easier than when I was 20. Good digital hearing aids also selectively suppress loud background noise as it amplifies other sounds, making bird songs clearer in strong winds or along a shore with crashing waves.
I still can’t hear some high frequency bird songs unless the bird is very close, but I no longer watch Golden-crowned Kinglets without hearing their lovely song.
This article first appeared in “Attracting Birds” in the January/February 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine. After publishing it, we received the following letter from reader Bob Honig of Waller County, Texas. He has more tips for anyone whose hearing isn’t what it used to be.
As a hearing aid wearer, I was very pleased to read Laura Erickson’s column in Bird watchingFebruary 2021. I have been using hearing aids since February 2020.
The soundscape has always been of paramount importance to my bird watching: for land bird watching in particular, I often identified up to 80-90% of the birds I observed by voice alone. Until early 2019, my annual hearing tests indicated hearing loss at higher frequencies, but still within the normal range; my audiologist told me he doesn’t need hearing aids — yet. And that matched my birdwatching experiences: I felt like I heard everything other people heard. But in late 2019, I sometimes couldn’t hear several species (e.g. Sedge Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher) that mates standing right next to me could hear. I knew hearing aids were in sight – my next hearing test confirmed it, and I received the hearing aids the same day.
But the birds’ voices weren’t the only importing factors: when your brain doesn’t get its usual auditory stimulation, it declines. The link between hearing loss and dementia (and other conditions) is well known (lots of information on the web about it). This is one of the most important things you need to know about hearing loss and hearing aids. I had first-hand experience of this, as my mother’s dementia was undoubtedly greatly exacerbated by her refusal to get hearing aids for at least 10 years after hearing tests indicated she needed them. . So whenever someone, birder friend or not, mentions that they seem to be losing a bit of their hearing, I don’t hesitate to point it out to them. It may be preaching, but it’s too important to pass up.
Now I hear the birds I missed again. But some I hear a little differently, especially from a distance. (For example, is the flea I hear a cardinal or an orange-crowned warbler?) That’s the nature of hearing aids; not all harmonics manifest exactly as you experienced before, so there is a bit of acclimatization involved. But it’s been wonderful since I got the hearing aids. Sometimes I even hear something that my hearing companions can’t because I can set the volume to a fairly high sensitivity. (I have to be on my toes to quickly lower the volume if, say, a Carolina Wren is singing its song up close.)
So if you suspect you have hearing loss, don’t delay in getting tested. Do it for your enjoyment of bird sounds and for your sanity. — Bob Honig, Waller County, Texas