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Walk Softly – What? I can't hear you!

by Geoffrey Carpentier

One of the greatest challenges we face as we grow older is that our balance changes, our eyesight diminishes, and our hearing starts to fade. I remember watching a video on growing old gracefully, it seemed more fun on TV than it does in real life.

So, let's talk about this for a bit. It seems hearing loss has to do with the tiny hairs in your ears. Attached to nerve cells in the cochlea (i.e. inner ear) are thousands of tiny hairs which help turn sound vibrations into electrical signals, which are transmitted to the brain and then translated into sound. As we age, these hairs get worn and degrade, and our hearing deteriorates at an unpredictable pace.

So, as a naturalist, what effect does that have? Well, if you study things where hearing is less important, such as mammals, insects, plants, etc., hearing loss is only a minor inconvenience. But if you're a bird watcher, it can be a life-altering issue. Generally, the high-range bird calls and songs are lost first. These are notes produced by birds such as the Golden-crowned Kinglet and Blackpoll Warbler, for example. Often, the lowest sounds disappear next, so a distant Great Horned Owl might present a challenge. If you're listening to a chorus of several species singing at once on an early June morning, the outcome can be utterly confusing.

So what should you do? Well, the obvious answer is a hearing aid, but be careful because most of these are designed for uses other than intensely listening for bird songs. You would want to test them and perhaps the best way is to run your Merlin App and see how the birds sound when your aids are in. This may take a bit of experimentation. Did you know you can enhance the use of hearing aids by changing the default factory settings on hearing aids to facilitate better bird-watching experiences? One other tip: standard hearing aids may take 5-8 milliseconds to process sound, but the newest aids are faster, processing sound in as little as half a millisecond. This is a big deal to a birder.

If you're not quite ready for hearing aids but still need assistance, try cupping your ears with your hands and face in the direction of the bird you're trying to hear. You will be amazed how much better you can immediately hear with this simple trick. But of course, you can't do this for prolonged periods of time for obvious reasons.

There are recording devices which can help you hear better, and essentially, some involve simply recording a sound and playing it back at a later time with increased volume, effective but not too practical in the field. However, if you're doing something like breeding bird studies, this may work well and, in fact, is being used in the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas in some areas. These passive audio recording devices or autonomous field recorders can gather limitless data under challenging conditions.

Another tool to use in real-time is something like the Merlin App, which has a feature which allows you to simultaneously record and identify bird songs as you hear them. It is much more sensitive than our normal hearing and can pick up things we don't hear. Once you recognize something is there you'd like to see, you can now go look specifically for it, and as you get closer, you, too, should be able to hear it eventually. Another app I've read about but haven't tried is one called 'Hear Birds Again.' It is available only for iPhones at this time. It is designed for people who have high-frequency hearing loss and, according to Audubon, is very effective. The designer Lang Elliott describes it this way, "this is a free, open-source iOS app which employs advanced algorithms to lower the pitch of bird songs in real-time, thereby making them audible during walks in nature."

Now let's get out there and hear some noise!

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.

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