By Sarah Toner
Many experienced and intermediate birders use their sense of hearing to quickly locate and identify birds that would otherwise go unnoticed. Anyone who has chased Connecticut or MacGillivray’s warblers through the underbrush will understand the benefits of knowing their songs. Those who do chase them might curse their knowledge later, as they pick thorns and brambles out of their many scratches, but the song certainly helped them to know there was a warbler nearby. By incorporating sound into our bird identification toolboxes, birding can also be opened to people who can’t normally see a bird’s colorful splendor: the visually impaired.
In her article, “Blind Birding Takes Flight,” Kimberly Davis describes the ways in which visually impaired birders can continue to bird, despite their impairments. Blind birders can bird by ear just as sighted birders can, except that they can’t rely on the bird showing itself. Blind birders can use the same resources sighted birders use in order to learn bird calls and songs. They can then take this knowledge out into the field to practice their identification skills. In fact, in 2004, the Great Texas Birding Classic created a new division, the “Outta-sight Song Birder Tournament,” specifically for the blind and visually impaired. Blind birding teams for the event can include sighted members who are blindfolded in addition to blind team members. Each team is led by a sighted guide, who takes blind birders to their destinations and is not allowed to use sight while birding.
Blind birding is a creative way to open doors for the blind by using our sense of hearing. The blind can process sounds better, possibly giving them a slight advantage for birding by ear. The idea that blind people innately have better hearing, however, is not true. Ashmead et al. (1998) compared the hearing of blind people with that of sighted people, showing no difference in acuity. The apparent difference is that blind people use auditory information better than most sighted people, probably because they rely on their hearing every day in a different way than sighted people.
With more training, this advantage in hearing can become even better. Even though we are learning more and more about how to use advanced technology to help the blind, simple solutions, such as using natural echolocation skills, can offer new methods to help the blind get around in the world, locate objects, and enjoy nature. By making a series of clicks with his tongue and hearing the echoes to locate objects around him, Dan Kish, a blind man and president of World Access for the Blind, can even mountain bike safely. Kish and the instructors he works with are teaching other blind people how to echolocate and map out different kinds of spaces in their minds in order to find their way. This skill could give the blind and visually impaired more freedom in rugged terrain as they go birding.
About the author: Sarah Toner, 14, has been birding since she was 8. She lives in southeast Michigan but wants to move to beautiful Whitefish Point, Michigan. She doesn't have one favorite bird, but likes drab, brown northern birds such as Clay-colored Sparrow, Boreal Chickadee, and Rough-legged Hawk. She was a member of the 2011 ABA Tropicbirds team in Texas and attended the 2011 Camp Colorado. Sarah also received first place in the 10-13 year-old writing division and third place in the illustration division of the 2010 ABA Young Birder of the Year contest.
World Access for the Blind. World Access for the Blind: Our vision is sound. 2010. Web. Accessed 5 May 2011. http
Ashmead, D.H., Wall, R.S., Ebinger, K.A., Eaton, S.B., Snook-Hill, M.M., and Yang, X. 1998. Spatial hearing in children with visual disabilities. Perception. 27(1): 105-22.
“Blind people’s other senses not more acute.” 21 February 2008. Psyblog: Understand your mind. Web. Accessed 3 May 2011. http