Robin singing
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Teaching Birding by Ear to Children Who Are Blind

Tips from an adult who is blind to teach students with visual impairments to identify birds.

A Gift

A biology professor introduced me to birding by ear when I was in college.  I think neither he nor I realized what a wonderful gift he had given me. Below are suggestions for how you can acquaint your students with what has long been one of my greatest passions.  Birding by ear can be enjoyed by students of any age.

Start Indoors

BirdTunes iconBegin by spending time in the classroom talking about birds and teaching a few easily recognizable local bird sounds. There are many resources within easy reach if you have access to the internet and a smartphone. You may want to ask students to name a bird they have heard of, and then use Merlin to play its sounds.  

What do Birds Look Like?

If possible, bring in some taxidermied birds for students to touch.  Talk about size and weight.  E.g. the Black-capped Chickadee is much smaller than a robin and weighs about as much as a sheet of paper.

Why do Birds Sing?

Talk to students about why birds sing.  They may sing to attract a mate.  They give danger calls when they see a hawk or other predatory bird in the area, and they sometimes make sounds to stay in contact with others of their species.  Actually there is a lot we do not know about why birds sing.

What’s that Bird Saying?

Use of some clever mnemonics can help students remember bird sounds.  The American robin seems to say “Cheer up, cheerily, cheer up.”  Play a bird sound and then ask your students to try and put their own words to it.  “What does that bird seem to be saying?”

You can find an exhaustive list of bird mnemonics from South Bay Birders Unlimited at http://web.stanford.edu/~kendric/birds/birdsong.html

“A Birdsong Tutor for Visually Handicapped Individuals” by Lang Elliott, (DB 29485), is available from the National Library Service for the Blind (NLS). It provides a wonderful introduction to bird and animal sounds of the eastern United States and Canada.

There are many accessible audio CD sets on the market designed to teach bird sounds. Birding by Ear and More Birding by Ear by Richard K. Walton and Robert W. Lawson are among my favorites. They are available from most birding supply stores or through Amazon and other online resources. The authors categorize birds by the kinds of sounds they make, such as “high-pitchers”, “Sing-songers”, birds with simple songs, birds with more complex or varied songs, etc. 

Merlin Bird ID logo
Merlin Bird ID logo

Cornell University offers an excellent online birding resource called All About Birds, as well as an excellent bird identification app called Merlin Bird ID. While it is not completely VoiceOver-friendly, it can be very useful to a sighted person who sees a bird and wants to identify it. You enter details such as approximate size and shape, coloration, habitat and time of year, and the app presents you with pictures of birds candidates to choose from.

Blindfold birdsong app iconBird Games

Blindfold Bird Songs is a recently developed fully accessible iOS app that contains games for learning bird sounds.  One game asks the user to match a bird name with the correct song from a short list. While some of the bird sounds are a bit muffled, it’s a fun app to play with.

Absolute Pitch

If one of your students is fortunate enough to have “absolute pitch”, he or she may find it easy to learn a variety of bird sounds very quickly. There is a professional nature recordist from Brazil who is blind who has learned to identify over 700 species of birds and more than 3,000 bird sounds. Visit the English version of Juan Pablo Culasso’s website.

Other Topics

There are many topics you may wish to connect to your discussion of birds.  Why do birds migrate and how far do they go?  How does our treatment of the environment affect bird populations?  What can we do to protect birds? How do current methods of coffee production affect the rain forests, and how does destruction of rain forests affect bird populations and migration?

Homework

After introducing some bird sounds, ask students to note what birds they hear on campus or at home.  Ask what other animal sounds they can recognize.

Let’s Go Birding!

Plan a short walk outdoors.  Early in the day and early in spring are ideal times for a bird walk, but if you cannot wait for spring, schedule a walk any time you can.  Have a brief discussion prior to heading outside.  Suggest some birds to listen for, and ask students to pay attention to other sounds also. Through your own enthusiasm, you can instill a desire in your students to experience the beauty and mystery of birding by ear.  

By Jerry Berrier

Return to Accessible Science main page.

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