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Hear the Motorcycle

Waterthrush, northern  moose bog vt june 13 2010 DPF_3002
[…or the Northern Waterthrush. Moose Bog Vermont, June 2010.]

Vince Elia, friend and NJ Audubon Research Associate, shared a story with me that speaks volumes about hearing birds.

He was leading a “birding by ear” field trip and had been emphasizing that the first step to identifying birds by their sounds was simply to detect them. As the group walked along, Vince noticed the rumble of a motorcycle passing on a distant road. It was clearly audible, and there was no doubt in Vince’s mind that the average person would have had no problem picking it up. As the sound faded into the distance, Vince asked the group, “How many of you just heard that motorcycle?”

Every person in the group responded the same way:  “What motorcycle?”  Vince response is the title of this article.

First, let’s give an important nod to reality. Humans vary in hearing ability, both in terms of loudness (amplitude) and pitch (frequency). Some are blessed with outstanding hearing throughout the range of audible frequencies, and others are less fortunate.

The average frequency of the songs of songbirds is roughly the same pitch as the highest note of a piano, but there is much variation and many are higher than that. Cedar Waxwings and Blackpoll Warblers have famously high songs, reaching beyond 8,000 Hz, and the final note in a Blackburnian Warbler’s song pushes past 11,000 Hz. Although young people with keen ears can theoretically hear all the way up to 20,000 Hz, some birders for example cannot hear waxwings or the high note in the Blackburnian’s song. Unfortunately for us, loss of hearing with age is a problem that seemingly cannot be avoided, one exacerbated due to exposure to loud music or machinery. Some people, whether young or old, may suffer deficiencies in hearing not only high but also low-pitched or mid-range sounds, due to damage or genetics.  And there is certainly disparity between birders when it comes to hearing faint or far-away sounds, whether high- or low-pitched.

So there are our excuses – we simply don’t have the raw material to hear well, we tell ourselves, because of genetics, age, or abuse.

Maybe. I think hearing bird sounds is as much a matter of discipline and practice as it is a matter of raw physical ability. Highly skilled birders are freaky good at detecting sounds. This cultivated ear is why tour leaders hate it when participants play a bird sound with a smart phone or I-pod without them knowing. The participant may be at the back of the group and think they’re playing it softly, but the leader’s going to hear it, I promise you. I’ve watched leaders absolutely jump when someone played a rarity’s vocalization.

Anyhow, we’ve got to make the best of what we’ve got. You are undoubtedly better at spotting birds now than you were when you began birding, and you can get better at hearing them, too. How?

1) Practice listening constantly until it becomes second nature. Be alert to sound at all times. Some birders are almost creepy this way. You’ve met the type. You can be having an involved conversation with them and get a sentence like this: “We’ll be driving up to Massachusetts – White-crowned Sparrow – to spend Easter with – there it is again – my grandmother, and driving back down on Friday.”

2) Reach out with your ears. Just like we can’t expect every bird to tee-up on a bush 10 feet away, we can’t expect every bird sound to come through as if we’re wearing headphones with the volume is on 10. I like to visualize listening as casting a net with my ears – I’m casting it wide, and far, and with a fine mesh.

3) Walk QUIETLY and stand STILL!! This may be the most important advice I can offer. If you are moving, talking, crunching gravel, or swishing clothing, you cannot possibly hear well. Wear fleece or wool so it doesn’t swish. Choose your substrate carefully when you walk, walk slowly, put your feet down gently, stop often. Convince your companions to follow these tips as well.

4) Listen past the obvious. Let’s face it, a few birds make most of the noise – Ovenbirds, catbirds, robins. Every time you hear a new bird, catalog it and then try to put that noise on your mental back burner, so you can listen for something else. Imagine turning the net you are casting into a filter, blocking out unwanted sounds such as common birds, car noise and machinery while allowing fainter or more interesting sounds through.

5) If birding by auto, get out of the car! You can hear much more if you do.

6) Face the sound of interest. Some people also like to cup their hands behind their ears, which has value in terms of amplifying sounds and helps block out interfering background noise.

7) Take care of what you’ve got! Always wear hearing protection when operating machinery, using firearms, and even going to concerts. See a doctor if you suspect any kind of hearing problem or experience loss.

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Don Freiday
I'm a freelance birder/naturalist/photographer living in Cape May, NJ. My professional experience includes 30+ years in the wildlife field, mostly involving education and interpretation, with several government agencies and NGO's. My hobbies include everything natural, especially birding; photography; training and hunting my Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Daniel Boone; fishing; canoeing and kayaking; camping; backpacking; and a little cooking. I blog about birds and nature at .
  • Hey Don!

    I particularly like tips #2 & #4. I think your net-casting metaphor is quite apt. I sometimes feel when I’m sifting the air for a mega-distant Vesper Sparrow or some such at the back of a rowdy spring dawn chorus that I’m actually reaching with my ears…the aural equivalent of standing on tiptoes and craning one’s neck to see. I also sometimes get an image of clearing away foreground material—dirt, brush, etc, to reveal the faint sounds hidden beyond them.

  • This is great, Don, thanks. I have physiologically poor hearing, but practice makes, if not perfect, then at least much better than most non-birders’ capacity. Years ago I went to the doctor about my problem, and was told that my hearing was just fine for conversation. “But I don’t want to talk to people,” I said, “I want to hear more birds!”

  • Like Jeff, I identify with tips #2 and #4. Combined they remind me of a phrase Ken Rosenberg used at the World Series of Birding several years ago, something he called “deep listening.” While I certainly haven’t mastered it, it’s not due to a lack of practice — I often find myself consciously attempting to hear past the most prominent songsters for the more subtle species that might go unnoticed.

    Great tips, thank you!

  • Great tips Don! I think developing a good ear is probably the biggest challenge for most birders and it takes years and years of practice for most of us to get any good at it. The “deep listening” idea is great, it takes total concentration when there is a lot of noise, but when someone is skilled in the art it can be really amazing.

  • Brett Walker

    Great article. Birds’ vocalizations literally create a “sea of flying information” around us every day. How much information we derive from sounds is limited only by our ability to perceive their differences and observe their context. Those who are “skilled in the art” live in that world, they have broken upwards through the surface and immersed themselves in this sea of information. They use that information to recognize species, families, geographic dialects, individuals, status, age, interactions, and context, all based on sound. Although it can take years of intense study, birders can learn from what others know, and if they spend time carefully listening and observing in the field using the tips above, they can start to wade into that sea. I started to make sense of bird sounds around me as a twenty-something birder, and suddenly, I became aware of a whole new world out there that I didn’t know about before. Ever since then, I have experienced birds in a whole new way. Common bird songs sound like the voices of old friends, new and different songs stand out. Birding by ear allows you to bird any time, any place, with or without binoculars. Sounds make you aware of what’s going on around you well before you see it happening. This awareness of the “sea of flying information” all around me made me feel like I was better able to understand their world and more in tune with nature itself. It is this aspect of birding that I fell in love with many years ago and that keeps me listening and watching birds year after year.

  • Brett Walker

    It also lets me keep birding while fishing, hunting, kayaking, skiing, BBQ-ing, walking the dogs, driving, etc.!

  • The example of the motorcycle is right on target. People do not listen to nature (I have been accused of not listening, but that is a different problem).

    I seem to have the opposite problem as Rick Wright. I have difficulty remaining mentally in conversations because the background bird noise is so attention-demanding! And, watching TV with me can be irritating. “What? An Eastern Whip-Poor-Will in Bosnia?” (JAG). “There is another planet with Cactus Wrens–they must have been transplanted all around the universe!” (Stargate SG1).

    As an over 50 male, I do have some hearing impairment–left ear is a bit “soft” in the mid-range. But I can still hear enough high-pitch that I can identify creepers and golden-crowned kinglets by call and song. Birding in the forest, my preferred habitats, I figure I still do 90% of my birding by ear–at least, I FIRST detect 90% of species by hearing them, then work to see them.

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