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I’m Losing My Hearing, Part 1: Bummer Dude

A little while ago, I had a strange experience. I was walking along one of the trails near my house in the suburbs northwest of Denver, Colorado, and I noticed that all the Allard’s ground crickets (Allonemobius allardi) were calling from the grass along the left side of the trail. I continued twenty paces, and it was the same: They were calling to my left, but not to my right.

To my human eyes, conditions looked the same on either side on the trail: a sea of tall, brown, brittle grass—the way grass looks around here by late October. If I were a cricket, I reasoned, either side of the trail would be just as good. But I’m not a cricket. Neither am I a sandpiper.

Re: not a sandpiper. Have you ever marveled at how two seemingly equivalent ponds, with apparently identical offerings of mudflats and midges, can host utterly different assemblages of sandpipers? One pond might be teeming with peeps, dowitchers, and phalaropes, while the other has nothing but a Killdeer, if that. And it’s not a one-off thing: Come back the next day, or even the next year, and it’s the same. One pond is feast, the other famine, consistently so.

We humans, in our coarse and indiscriminate way, perceive generalized mudflats and midges. But the sandpipers—with their super-sensitive palates, fine-tuned motion sensors, and urgent metabolic needs—see, smell, hear, taste, and even feel things differently. There’s something about Putrid Pond that appeals to the sandpipers, and there’s something else about Stinky Seep that doesn’t appeal. Our human senses and “needs” just aren’t up to the task of distinguishing between the two offerings.

I figured it had to be the same with the crickets. For whatever reason, they were singing from the left side of the trail. The grass all looked brown to me, but maybe the grass was, in some sense, “greener” on the left: more succulent, or perhaps a bit warmer, or maybe devoid of some competing or predatory species on the right. Or likely some complex function of those and other factors: higher food quality + warmer microclimate + fewer predators = crickets along the left side of the trail, but not the right. Crickets, like sandpipers, assess conditions in ways that we humans cannot.

The trail ended, and I turned around. And, then, my strange experience turned really strange.


All of a sudden, all the crickets were singing from the other side of the trail. It was like one of those experiments where you reverse the polarity of a magnet. I walked a couple paces, and it was the same: The crickets were still on the other side of the trail, t01a Bummer Dudehe complete opposite of where they had been a few minutes ago.

An unhappy thought occurred to me.

I did a 180°, and the crickets again “reversed polarity,” if you will. This wasn’t about the crickets. This was about me. The crickets were all around me, but I was hearing them only out of my left ear. My right ear couldn’t pick them up.

Bummer dude.


Before we proceed, I ought to address a matter I’m sure most of you are wondering about: What the heck is an Allard’s ground cricket, and what does it sound like? This is a coarse analogy, but the diverse ground cricket clan, subfamily Nemobiinae in the orthopteran family Gryllidae, are like the Empidonax flycatchers: small, drab lookalikes with distinctive vocalizations. Empids are relatively loud (Acadian), low-pitched (Gray), and, more often than not, loud and low-pitched (Alder, Willow, Hammond’s…). But many ground crickets are quiet and high-pitched. Allonemobius allardi is an exemplary ground-cricket: Its pleasing, tinkling song is soft and high-pitched—higher than a Cedar Waxwing or Brown Creeper, and much softer. I made this recording of one of the offending ground crickets:

A computer readout, below, of this cricket’s song enables us to “see” what we’re hearing. (Or not hearing, as the case might be.) The bottom panel plots the song as frequency in kHz (“kilohertz,” i.e., 1,000 hertz, or cycles per second) on the vertical axis vs. time in seconds on the horizontal axis. This cricket’s four-second song is right around 8 kHz, five octaves above middle C, or twice as high as the highest note on a piano. The top panel, the so-called “waveform function,” is more or less a measure of “loudness”—not a very precise term, I realize. Basically, if you’re right up against the ground cricket, it’s about 30 dB (“decibels”), equivalent to a quiet whisper in the library, distance 6 feet.


Allard's ground cricket (Allonemobius allardi); Lafayette, Boulder County, Colorado; Oct. 25, 2015; 3:57 pm; 72° F.

Allard’s ground cricket (Allonemobius allardi). Boulder County, Colorado; Oct. 25, 2015; 3:57 pm MDT; 72° F.


Allard’s ground crickets vary a bit in loudness and frequency. Here’s one coming in at just about 9 kHz (same location as above; Nov. 1, 2015; 3:02 pm; 73° F):

Anyhow. They’re all high-pitched. They’re all quiet. And I’m experiencing some difficulty hearing them.


I’ll come right out and say it: Americans in general, and birders in particular, have a hang-up about hearing loss. Hearing loss is uncool. It’s a sign that you’re getting up there in years, that you’re not the Young Turk you once were. I’ve been around the birding block more than once, and I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard snickering about some poor sap who “can’t hear the Blackpolls anymore.”

It’s not that way with vision. A birder with corrective lenses isn’t stigmatized. Noah Strycker, birding’s reigning Young Turk, practically celebrated when he had LASIK surgery. And check this out: My Gen Z kids are always a bit glum when they come out of their annual eye exam and learn that they won’t need glasses for at least another twelve months. It’s been, like, a hundred years since young people were embarrassed to wear glasses.

Same thing with other physical limitations. When we see a birder on crutches or in a wheelchair, we are inspired. And so we should be. I have a friend with fairly advanced muscular degeneration, a chronic and probably worsening condition, and she’s an active birder. Everybody admires her, and draws inspiration from her. But what if she wore hearing aids?

Cool birders Catherine Waters (left, corrective lenses) and Hannah Floyd (right, crutches). Big Sandy Draw, Chaffee County; Colorado; June 4, 2015.

Cool birders Catherine Waters (left, corrective lenses) and Hannah Floyd (right, crutches). Chaffee County; Colorado; June 5, 2015.


It’s weird. You can hobble around on crutches, or wear coke bottle glasses, or get puking sick on calm seas, and nobody will judge you for it. You can have an artificial knee installed, or elect for LASIK eye surgery, or wear a conspicuous Scopolamine patch, and you don’t lose any birding cred. But put in your hearing aids, and the murmuring and tsk-tsking instantly becomes as loud as a Screaming Piha or Horned Screamer.

It’s weird, as I said, and it’s messed up. Aren’t hearing aids and corrective lenses, in essence, the same thing? Nobody with 20/200 vision would go birding without glasses or contacts. Yet many of us with comparable hearing loss forego hearing aids.

In Part 2 of this three-part post, we’ll take a look at hearing aids that really make a difference for birders. They’re not exactly cheap. But let’s put things in perspective: Depending on your insurance, they’re a fair bit less than LASIK surgery or a high-end scope-and-tripod rig. We’ll get there in tomorrow’s post. For now, though, I have a gentle suggestion: If you have a hang-up about hearing loss—and believe you me, I’m right there with you—see if you can put it aside for now.

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • Joe OConnell

    I lost my high frequency hearing (titinitis) years ago due to loud noise. I could hear low frequency sound like people’s voices, American Crows, Blue Jays just fine……but I could not hear any warblers or other birds. Hearing aides would not help me because it would make all sound (both high and low frequency noise), including people’s voices too loud for me. I happened upon a product called “songfinder”. I was skeptical at first but I purchased one on line. It worked great. It converted the high frequency to lower frequency which worked perfectly for hearing all the birds in the high frequency range. It is not a hearing aide and therefore my not help everyone. I paid around $700 about 15 years ago. You can check it out on line and decide for yourself. P.S. I do not have any connection with the company.

    • Ted Floyd

      In the October 2015 issue of Birding, Laura Erickson has a thorough review of the SongFinder. Free PDF download here:

    • Laura Erickson

      Modern digital hearing aids only augment sounds in the frequency ranges where hearing has been lost. Unfortunately, modern digital hearing aids cost as much as two or three HIGH-END binoculars. Insurance only covers part, and only if you have a really good policy. The SongFinder is superb, too–I am finding that both make for the perfect solution for me, but again, this was more than we could afford except my audiologist wrote that they were essential for my work, so the expenses were for me at least partially deductible.

      • Joe oconnell

        Thanks. I am going to check that out. I lost part of my hearing while in the army in 1968/1969 so maybe the VA will provide me with this type of hearing aide. Back when I went to the VA,they told me regular hearing aide would not help but that was a long time ago

  • Dick Ashford

    Thanks for this series, Ted. I put off the hearing aid decision for years – hey, I could concentrate on raptors and ducks! That said, I finally purchased a pair to ensure domestic tranquility. My audiologist explained that my upper frequency loss meant I was not hearing consonants (this is counterintuitive to me), which are often at the beginning and end of words. This can be a bigger deal than not hearing chip notes (especially if one’s spouse is talking with their back turned, but that’s another story). I won’t be teaching any birding-by-ear classes, but at least I can hear it when someone says, “what’s that?” And, my wife doesn’t have to nag me (as much)…

    • Ted Floyd

      Re: nagging. That brings up the complex matter of the psychology of attentiveness. You know how some birders just see stuff before all the rest of us do?–I’m not talking about getting the ID right (or wrong), I’m talking about simply noticing the bird in the first place. John Breitsch and Mark Cocker are amazing at this.

      Same thing, I believe, with hearing birds. There are people whose ears are always “roaming about” in the same way as John’s and Mark’s eyes. And maybe it’s not so much a function of alert eyes or ears so much as it is a function of an alert and attuned *brain*.

      So, I’m talking about the person who hears the Greater White-fronted Goose in the flock of Canada Geese; or immediately notices the Northern Parula chipnote against the din of Yellow-rumped Warbler chipnotes; or picks up on the Western Meadowlark song while everybody else is just mentally dialing out the Eastern Meadowlarks.

      I’m talking about relatively low-pitched, easily heard vocalizations (Greater White-front, parula, Western Meadowlark). In other words, I’m talking about paying attention. I think that’s a huge part of being a good “ear birder.”

      To bring this back to spousal nagging: “I know you heard me, but were you actually listening?”

      • Dick Ashford

        Ted, if this were a Facebook string, I would “like” your comment. Thanks! 😀

  • David Rankin

    Perhaps it’s because I’m in a different generation, one that doesn’t (regularly) deal with hearing loss, but I was surprised by Ted’s assertion that there’s a stigma that goes along with hearing loss. I’ve never encountered anyone who teased someone about hearing loss, or scoffed at someone who wore hearing aides. To do such a thing sounds as silly as Ted thinks it should be.

    P.S. I still hate Disqus.

    • Ted Floyd

      Hi, David. Thanks for the feedback. Two things:

      1. Google “hearing aids” + “embarrassing.” I got a million hits.

      2. Your generation may not deal with hearing loss, but it suffers from it! 49% of males under the age of 40 have hearing loss, and 17% of males under the age of 20 have hearing loss. By the time you’re 50, you’re in the minority if you’re a male with normal hearing. Birders notice incipient hearing loss better than more than most people–call it “The Blackpoll Effect.” And cricket-listeners are even more aware of it. Anyhow, check out:

      As to DISQUS, you’re just posting as “guest,” right? That works just fine fine for me.

  • Pingback: I’m Losing My Hearing, Part 3: Life is Good « ABA Blog()

  • Kevin Murphy

    Great series Ted, gives some of us a little hope. I’m a generation behind you (28 now) but have high-frequency hearing loss, very slight in one side and much more extensive on the other from a traumatic perforation on the other. I started taking my hearing much more seriously after the accident, especially when I noticed that turning my head from side to side would make distant Waxwings disappear and reappear depending which ear faced them. I work as a wildlife biologist and am a birder (and an avid hunter), so my hearing matters to me both personally and professionally. While hearing loss is definitely a factor of age, one thing that can’t be emphasized enough is protection of what you have as hearing loss only ever goes one direction. I have earplugs stashed in all my toolboxes/vehicles/shooting bags/hunting bags, and have excellent earmuffs for operating lawn mowers/leaf blowers/chainsaws/pounding fence posts. I also have a pair of electronic earmuffs for use while hunting and shooting that allow for normal conversation and still suppress loud sounds, they can be had for $50 or less. Looking at OSHA or other guidelines for hearing protection and noise levels can be enlightening as things like lawn mowers and leaf blowers are well above the decibel threshold for recommended protection. Protection can help mitigate future losses, and is under-emphasized to many (especially younger generations).

    • A.J Hand

      My problem, is that I am completely deaf the most of the frequencies birds use. I am sure many others have the same problem. You can amplify those frequencies all you want but we still can’t hear them. Even the best digital hearing aids are of no use. I have tried them. The Songfinder mentioned above is the only solution I know of that solves this problem.

      A.J. Hand

  • Pingback: Birding Online: October 2015 « ABA Publications()

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