Eh? What’s that you say, little bird?
My saddest moment as a birder was when, about 10 years ago, I saw a Golden-crowned Kinglet singing. The bird was only about 10 feet away as I watched its tiny body vibrate with sound as it opened and closed its beak, but I couldn’t hear a note.
According to the Mayo Clinic, almost half of Americans age 65 and up have some degree of hearing loss. For most, the loss is at higher frequencies rather than across the board, so we usually can hear someone’s lower-frequency vowel sounds after we’ve lost the higher-frequency consonants, making them sound as if they’re mumbling.
As a birder, I was heartbroken to lose that Golden-crowned Kinglet along with Brown Creepers, Cedar Waxwings, and Blackburnian Warblers. But birdsong is important to a lot more people than us birders. One hearing aid company, Widex, conducted a survey of people in eight different countries across the globe and found that birdsong was among the top three most valued sounds across all cultures, along with music and human voices. Every country surveyed listed birdsong as the top natural sound, and in the U.K., birdsong ranked above music and human voices!
In April 2015, I visited an audiologist. Before the appointment, I looked at spectrographs of some birdsongs I couldn’t hear anymore — the frequencies were mainly above 6,000 Hz. (The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle has spectrographs for every North American warbler, a family with extremely high-frequency songs as well as mid-range ones.) My test results confirmed severe hearing loss above that frequency but only minimal to moderate loss at mid-ranges.
The Phonak digital hearing aids my audiologist programmed for me, as well as other high-end ones, have two settings easily toggled between. The first is for everyday use. For me, that’s the ideal setting for hard-to-hear movie or TV dialogue, noisy restaurants, or soft-spoken companions on car trips. My second setting is programmed for birds.
The first bird I heard through them was a robin. I thought I’d been hearing robins just fine, but with the hearing aids, their caroling sounded much more brilliant — high-frequency overtones contribute to the beautiful quality of their song. And now, instead of amorphous background noise with a few identifiable sounds, I can pick out individual birds singing simultaneously again. In the same way that eyeglasses 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, and so now locating heard birds is easier than when I was in my 20s. Good digital hearing aids also selectively suppress noisy background sounds as they boost other sounds, making birdsongs clearer in high wind or along a shoreline with crashing waves.
I still can’t hear some high-frequency bird songs unless the bird is very close, but I’m no longer watching Golden-crowned Kinglets without hearing their lovely song.
This article was first published 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 further advice 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 BirdWatching, February 2021. I’ve been using hearing aids since February 2020.
The soundscape has always been of prime importance to my birdwatching: For land birding in particular, I’d often identify maybe as many as 80-90 percent of the birds I’d observe by voice alone. Through early 2019, my annual hearing tests indicated some hearing loss at higher frequencies but still within normal range; my audiologist indicated no need for hearing aids — yet. And that was consistent with my birdwatching experiences: I seemed to be hearing everything others would hear. But by the end of 2019, at times I wasn’t hearing several species (e.g., Sedge Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher) that companions standing right next to me could. I knew hearing aids were in the offing — my next hearing test confirmed that, and I got the hearing aids that very day.
But bird voices were not the only factors of import: 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 info on the web about this). This is one of the most important things you should know about hearing loss and hearing aids. I had firsthand experience with that, 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 — birdwatching friend or not — mentions that they seem to be losing a bit of their hearing, I don’t hesitate to make them aware of this. It may be preaching, but it’s too important to let pass.
Now, I again can hear birds I’d been missing. But some I hear a bit differently, especially at a distance. (For example, is that chip I’m hearing a cardinal or an Orange-crowned Warbler?) That’s the nature of hearing aids; not all the overtones come through exactly as you formerly experienced, so there’s a bit of acclimation involved. But it’s been wonderful since I first got the hearing aids. I occasionally even hear something that my companions with good hearing don’t, as I can adjust the volume to a pretty high sensitivity. (I have to be on my toes to lower the volume quickly if, for example, a Carolina Wren belts out its song from close range.)
So, if you suspect you have hearing loss, do not put off getting tested. Do it for your enjoyment of bird sounds and for your mental health. — Bob Honig, Waller County, Texas