Falmouth 'birding by ear' a hit with visually impaired Mainers

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FALMOUTH — We see them flying, perching on telephone lines, and nesting in trees. It seems everywhere we go, no matter what the season, birds are all around us.

But if you listen, can you tell them apart? And what if that was your only way to identify them?

A recent partnership between Maine Audubon Society and the Iris Network of Portland, a nonprofit organization that helps the visually impaired remain independent, looked at just that.

The partnership brought a group of about a dozen blind or visually impaired individuals to Audubon’s Gilsland Farm June 17 to go birding by ear.

Participants first spent an hour inside, learning how to distinguish bird calls. Staff naturalist Doug Hitchcox explained there are techniques that can help when birding by ear, such as associating words with the bird calls, comparing them to other sounds, or associating the calls with “phonetics.”

For example, he said the call of a barred owl is commonly said to sound like the phrase “who cooks for you?”

“Birding by ear puts you a step ahead,” Hitchcox said. “There’s a limited field of what you can see, but you can hear things all around you.”

Hitchcox gave the group the opportunity to hold deceased birds that had been cleaned and would likely become preserved taxidermy pieces. His selling point was “you may never get to handle a robin again.”

The group then went outside to try to identify whatever local avian happened to be nesting nearby. Hitchcox said they would most likely hear birds such as the tufted titmouse and the black-capped chickadee.

Brenda Bacon of Wells said she wanted to visit Audubon because she often listens to the birds that stop by on her porch at home.

“They just sound so pretty,” she said. “It’s nice to have a chance to identify them.”

Bacon founded and runs the Wells Support Group for those with visual impairment and their families.

Fellow Wells resident and Iris participant Nancy Tousey agreed with Bacon.

“I have a lot of birds where I live, and this is a good way to get to know who I’m listening to,” Tousey said.

The partnership between the two organizations came about when Maine Audubon Education Director Eric Topper reached out to the Iris Network. He said he had previously worked in the adaptive recreation field, and had familiarity with the Iris Network.

“The combination of this being a strategic opportunity for us … with a population that’s new to us, which I had some familiarity with, made it a nice fit,” Topper said.

He said this was the first time such a program has taken place at Maine Audubon.

Cammy Moraros, a vision rehabilitation therapist at Iris, said the event was run through the organization’s Living With Grace program, which provides participants opportunities to “expand their body of knowledge and skill.”

“We incorporate a lot of different experiences,” Moraros said. “We may expand their interests and connect them with adult education.”

Moraros said the hands-on classes allow the participants to learn from each other.

“Now they know (Maine Audubon) is here,” Moraros said, so they can come back on their own. “It let’s people know what other resources are in their area.”

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Sidebar Elements

Brenda Bacon holds a deceased bird in her hands, while Laura Vittorioso looks on at a “birding by ear” event June 17 at Maine Audubon in Falmouth. Bacon is a participant at the Iris Network in Portland, which provides blind and visually impaired individuals with support, and Vittorioso is a vision rehabilitation therapist.

Maine Audubon naturalist Doug Hitchcox, center, leads a group of visually impaired participants from the Iris Network at last week’s “birding by ear” event at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.